NORTH VERNON — Jennings County High School is addressing hunger in North Vernon and surrounding areas by helping its students and their immediate families.
The high school has become one of only a few Indiana schools to open a food pantry.
Initially stocked with 2,000 pounds of nonperishable food, Panther Pantry began to discreetly provide nourishment to more than 50 students when it opened April 25, according to faculty co-sponsor Marisa Patterson.
“Our students are the basis of our future,” Patterson said.
Based on local economic conditions, the need to help food-insecure children in the schools appears important:
Census figures indicate more than one in five children in Jennings County live below the poverty line.
As of January, 59 percent of the school corporation’s 4,730 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
A University of Wisconsin study indicates that, due to poor economic conditions, the number of Jennings County residents with a limited access to healthy foods jumped from 1 percent last year to 8 percent this year.
While there’s still plenty of food available for Thursday’s final distribution of the school year, both in-house and community support have surprised Patterson and the other faculty co-sponsor, Tracy Martin.
Several North Vernon-area churches have offered assistance, and faculty members have donated backpacks for the students to carry the food, Martin said.
Members of the school’s National Honor Society help keep the shelves stocked, and several individuals and organizations have inquired about making food donations.
“We’re not opposed to those who want to donate food for us,” Martin said.
“But right now, we are relying on Gleaners.”
Martin was referring to the Indianapolis-based Gleaners Food Bank, which also supplied Panther Pantry with seven units of shelving, a refrigerator and a freezer.
The success of in-school feeding programs rests largely with how discreetly they can provide the service to needy kids, according to the Feeding America Hunger Relief Charity.
The Chicago-based organization states that, since many teens fear being stigmatized by their peers, they often will refuse help if they believe other students might discover they are receiving assistance.
For that reason, Martin and Patterson have to walk a fine line to ensure the privacy of the young people they serve. For example, while honor students may stock the pantry, they will not be allowed to be present when students are receiving food.
While a few church volunteers pitched in this spring, Martin and Patterson expect to replace them with faculty volunteers after the start of the fall semester. Patterson said that will further reduce a needy student’s perceived risk of stigmatization.
The Panther Pantry doesn’t have defined guidelines for who is eligible to receive food from the pantry, because it takes the lead from Gleaners, which relies on people’s honor that they need food.
State regulations require that at least one certified food handler be present for all periods of the pantry’s operation, so several teachers have received or plan to earn ServSafe certification, Martin said.
While Panther Pantry is still in its opening phases, the facility is likely to grow in the near future.
Over the summer, Patterson and Martin will work with experts to review this spring’s operations to determine where improvements can be made.
A cosmetic change will emerge before next summer. Members of the art department will design and paint a mural in the newly acquired space while students are on summer vacation.
After fall classes get under way, the school will examine a proposal to expand the pantry’s operation from one day to two days a month and keep the pantry manned for two shifts a day instead of one, Martin said.
In the near future, faculty volunteers are expected to consider a proposal from Principal Tim Taylor to supply clothing and basic personal items to disadvantaged students.
“Things will need to be changed and tweaked as the needs of our students change,” Martin said. “I think we’ll be fine for the next few years, but later we will have to be constantly looking at the need and our resources.”
For Martin and Patterson, starting a food pantry is a far cry from their professional careers of teaching foreign languages. But Patterson said she has a genuine love for the pantry’s mission.
“If I want to give time, money or energy to an important cause, this is what I want to do,” she said.