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Kids, families get help after food pantry opens in South Country Central district

Students, from left, Ashley Bodkin, Bransen Reid, Madison

Students, from left, Ashley Bodkin, Bransen Reid, Madison Zimmermann, Brynn Terry, Annalisa Catoe and Brookhaven Elementary Principal Rebecca Raymond are part of an initiative with Island Harvest Food Bank. Credit: John Roca

A former book storage room has been transformed into a food pantry to help serve students and their families at Brookhaven Elementary School, a first for the South Country Central district and one of the newest food pantries to open in a Long Island public school.

The pantry in the K-3 grade school, which opened in November, is stocked with donations from Island Harvest, one of the region's largest nonprofit food banks. Bethpage-based Island Harvest Food Bank estimates there are more than 100,000 children on Long Island who are dealing with food insecurity.

“There are always increased needs. We hear it all the time," said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest. "Years ago, when many food pantries were established, it was considered a temporary, emergency feeding program, but now people depend on the food pantries whether it is in the community or the school.”

At Brookhaven, about 60% of the school's 460 students receive free and reduced lunch. That has led to about 20 families using the pantry. Educators at the school hope to expand the program, which does not cost the district anything, to some of the other seven school buildings in the district.

"We see such a growing need in our school ... Having this program really enables parents to have one less thing to worry about," Principal Rebecca Raymond said.

The plan is to supplement donations from Island Harvest with food drives in the community, Raymond said.

Island Harvest, a nonprofit that has distribution sites in Calverton, Hauppauge and Uniondale, operates a pantry program at 38 schools on Long Island, including preschools and three colleges. Programs as such started nearly two decades ago, with many initially set in Head Start, the U.S. government-funded preschool program.

The Island Harvest program has expanded over the years, with pantries opening at high schools in Glen Cove, Brentwood and East Hampton last year, Shubin Dresner said.

At Brookhaven, the school also has been participating in Island Harvest's weekend backpack program — where students are given packed meals — for about eight years. Initially, 50 students at the school were receiving the backpacks, but a cut in funding reduced that number to 30.

"If you are not well fed, if your basic needs are not being met — you are not able to function," Raymond said.

Island Harvest’s weekend program is in 26 schools at 14 school districts across Long Island, serving almost 1,250 kids, Shubin Dresner said. The program used to serve 1,800 children but lost some funding and had to cut back, “which was very difficult for us, and the children we serve,” she said.

Island Harvest receives the majority of its funding from the private sector, including individuals, corporations and foundations. In addition, the nonprofit depends heavily on donated products and services each year totaling more than $17 million.

The food pantry at Brookhaven supplements the backpack program, said Kate Coppola, the school's social worker. Educators at Brookhaven sent letters home to families, and those who signed up now receive a box of food. The parents select which day they want to come in, and the box is waiting for them. A box has enough items to last two to three weeks.

"That way it's anonymous. They come up and say they are here for a box and we hand it over to them," Coppola said.

The school has received two deliveries from Island Harvest, including items such as diapers, baby formula, canned goods, barbecue sauce, cereal and other nonperishables.

"If someone can't afford food, we don't want them to starve. It's good to help them," said 8-year-old Brookhaven student Annalisa Catoe.

Shubin Dresner said it's important that a food pantry hold nutritious items, and Raymond added a students' living situation has to be taken into account.

"Some of our families live in transient housing or shelters, and they may not have access to a stove — just a microwave," Raymond said.

Tara Bodkin, co-president of the school's Parent Teacher Association, said the group is launching a food drive to help. The group will send letters each month and ask for specific products, such as canned goods or pasta, she said.

"I didn't realize how many people don't have food — to know there are that many families that need it," Bodkin said.

Shubin Dresner said school pantries vary in size and scope across the Island.

“Some of these pantries occupy a very small area, and others have had a larger space,” she said. “Unfortunately, in some cases, schools may want to have a pantry, but often can’t accommodate it because of room or staffing needed to oversee it. It is a complicated program that takes planning and oversight to ensure that it is effective and useful to the school and the families who are accessing the vital resource.”

The North Babylon school district opened a pantry at its high school about two years ago, said Kim Skillen, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The pantry is organized and staffed by special education students in the high school's life skills program, but educators there make sure students receiving contributions remain anonymous. The pantry is also open Thursday nights for members of the community.

The pantry serves about 30 families a week within the district, Skillen said. Social workers or guidance counselors gather items to be sent home in backpacks, or students go to the pantry with a staff member to pick out what they need. About 40% of the district's students are on free and reduced lunch, meaning a family of four is living on Long Island for $45,000 a year or less, Skillen said.

The district received a donation of a refrigerator and freezer and can offer nonperishable meals. But now Skillen is on the lookout for a donated washer and dryer so she can collect and wash clothes and coats to be donated to children and their families.

"It's our job to support our families and our students beyond just teaching them to read and write," Skillen said. "We know when students are safe, secure and feel cared for [that] there is a direct correlation to their academic success."

Island Harvest also has a summer food program; it is the largest sponsor of the state's Summer Food Service Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last year, the summer program managed 67 sites across Long Island, serving 5,200 children.

“Families struggling to make ends meet rely on the Summer Food Service Program,” Shubin Dresner said. “For many of the children, that is their best meal of the day.”

ISLAND HARVEST CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS

  • Weekend Backpack Feeding Program is in 26 schools at 14 school districts across Long Island, serving almost 1,250 kids each day.
  • School Food Pantry Program is in 38 schools on Long Island, including preschools and three colleges.
  • Sponsor of the New York State Summer Food Service Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last year, the summer program managed 67 sites across Long Island, serving 5,200 children.

SOURCE: Island Harvest Food Bank of Bethpage

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