Help students through local pantry program

Nationwide, an estimated one in six children are food insecure.

The estimate within our  community is even higher. In Mon County, about 2,600, or about one in five, children don’t have consistent access to food.

These youth are not all below the poverty line. They just don’t have family resources to ensure the meals they need.

Two years ago, Roark Sizemore, then in high school, noticed hunger among his peers; and decided to help. He partnered with retired guidance counselor and current Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom, and they established  Monongalia County Pantry Plus More Inc.

Starting in South Middle School and Mason-Dixon Elementary School, they stocked a room in each with food, hygiene products, school supplies and some clothing.

Over the last two years, Pantry Plus More  gained nonprofit status, grants, a storage facility, donations and volunteers who expanded to eight schools. Roark said that at the start of the school year, they plan to operate in  10 schools.

These mini pantries are open and free to all youth. Students can take as much as they need, although Roark said the kids are often reluctant to do so.

To help children get food home discretely, Pantry Plus provides drawstring bags from various organizations.

Roark said the popularity of Vienna sausages surprised him, although each school varies in which products are most popular. Rice Krispies Treats are popular in all schools, and he said each pantry stocks a variety of mac and cheese — instant, dinner packs, etc. — along with other snack foods and cook-at-home meals.

“We go through a lot of juice,” Roark said. “We always have some kind of noodle and pasta sauce.”

I asked if nutrition factors into choice of Pantry products.

“It’s hard to make everything healthy in a kids’ pantry,” Roark said, explaining that the first priority is to make sure the kids aren’t hungry.

The children’s preferences, ability to carry home and cook, and cost are factors in what the pantries offer. To get input from the kids, volunteers left request cards in each pantry. They learned that our children needed can openers — which make a huge difference in accessibility, since not all donated and purchased cans have pull tabs.

They also learned students using the pantries need backpacks, which they started supplying.

“Food is by far the main focus,” Roark said. But toiletries and feminine hygiene products are also important. Roark learned from school counselors that many female students were missing up to six days per month of school for lack of feminine products at home.

Deodorant also leaves the pantry fast.

When I heard about this organization and its mission, I knew we needed this in Preston County as well. We have the resources to provide a little more food security to our community’s children.

Roark pointed out that children experiencing food insecurity are at risk for more than just hunger — they’re suffering emotionally as well, and have lower chances of graduation.

Having access to “the things that makes kids feel like other kids” can change their behavior in positive ways, Roark said. Making sure they are full and not focused on what they don’t have gives them a significantly better chance at success.

Every child in our community deserves the best chance at success, and we have the resources to make sure that hunger and hygiene aren’t stopping them.

Let’s give students in Preston, and more students in Mon, access to the basic things they need.

Aldona Bird is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Contact her at columns@dominionpost.com.

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