6 Steps to Opening a School Food Pantry

By Erik Talkin, CEO Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, California, and author of Lulu and the Hunger Monster™

6 Steps to Opening a School Food PantryIt’s a new year, and students are back to school after the winter break. After two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, it remains a very challenging time for many families. And the new strain of the virus has thrown additional roadblocks in the pathway to economic stability. Schools can support children and their families in these difficult times by being a place where children get not only the education that helps their brains develop, but also the food that helps brains and bodies grow.

When kids have access to healthy meals every day, they feel better, do better in school, and have fewer behavior problems. They have what they need to grow and just be kids. And the national school breakfast and lunch programs are a tremendous part of the effort to make sure kids thrive. But when school is over for the day, many families need assistance filling the gaps.

So perhaps now is the time to consider a school pantry program if your school does not already run one. You can partner with a local food bank to provide access to food for children and their families after the school day has ended.

School administrators, food bank staff, and parents work together to set up the pantries, which generally distribute fresh fruit and vegetables as well as canned foods. Some schools provide a dedicated space for the pantry where families can walk through and pick out their food. Others distribute prepacked bags of food.

Schools are a natural fit for food pantries—they provide an easy-to-access location that parents and students feel comfortable in and regularly visit. While some parents might not be able to visit traditional food pantries because of distribution times or location, in most cases school pantries distribute food at the end of the day when parents are already at the school to pick up their children.

Food pantries in schools can connect kids and their families with the healthy food they need during the weekend too. And by including a food pantry at your school, you will be in good company! Every year, school pantries serve 21 million meals to nearly 110,000 children.

three white students shelve food at a school pantry

Here are six steps for setting up a food pantry at your school:

Step 1. Identify the adults who will be responsible for the overall effort (gathering donations, ordering from a food bank, coordinating delivery to the school, safe storage, distribution, recordkeeping, etc.).

Step 2. Secure your school administration’s support for the project.

Step 3. Identify where in the school nonperishable foods will be stored and distributed. Consider these questions:

  • Is the space secure from theft? Tampering? Contamination from chemicals, water, etc.?
  • Can the food be appropriately stored—clean, dry, cool, off the ground, and at least six inches away from walls?
  • Is shelving needed? Do you have a cart to move food? A scale?

Step 4. Devise a plan and schedule for distribution. What days will you distribute food and supplies? What times?

Consider requiring families or students (if in high school) to bring a referral from counseling or administrative staff to get food. Be sure to protect their identities from other students and families, and protect their privacy in seeking emergency food assistance, in carrying food home, and so on.

Step 5. Develop a plan for how you will notify families, students, and the school community about the emergency food assistance available at school. Consider these items:

  • When/how often will you share the information with the school community?
  • How will you share it? Flyers? Posters? Articles in your newsletter?
  • How will you familiarize school staff with the program so they can refer students who may need food assistance?

Step 6. Consider enlisting student groups, clubs, or classes to collaborate on the project. These groups can:

  • Organize food drives to refill shelves in the pantry
  • Sort and shelve foods
  • Periodically take inventory and discard expired products

If you want to help feed kids during the school year, consider setting up a pantry at your school and work with your local food bank to start it. Also check out this link for four steps to starting a school food pantry and download the free action pack.

three Black students work to put food in a bag; in the background are shelves of food

Erik TalkinErik Talkin is also a writer and filmmaker and has served as a principal in two production companies. His short film The Gallery, starring Helena Bonham Carter, was selected for the London Film Festival. He has won an International Television Association Award for writing and directing educational drama, and his theatrical work has been produced on the London Fringe. Erik lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Lulu and the Hunger MonsterErik is the author of Lulu and the Hunger Monster.

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