Sixty percent of Brookfield Middle School students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which compares with 53 percent of students in Trumbull County, 50 percent of students statewide and 50 percent nationwide, said Michael Iberis, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley.
More and more schools are tackling hunger by opening food pantries within their buildings, which is what Brookfield Middle School did this year, an effort that now also serves the high school and is a complement to the elementary Backpack Program.
The school sees about three kids a day, who pick what items they want, as opposed to the Backpack Program, where others fill the backpacks and give them to students.
Middle school Principal Toby Gibson said he knows the need for food is larger than what is being addressed by the pantry right now – for some of the former Brookfield Elementary School principal’s students, they have never had another principal, so he has gotten know the students and their family situations, he said – but some students are reluctant to accept the help available.
“That’s a hard conversation to have,” he said of discussing student hunger, but one that he’ll keep trying to have.
After an initial flurry of speaking to students as a group about the pantry and providing promotional fliers, Gibson is now bringing small groups into the pantry, located in the back of the middle school office, to show them what they could choose. The effort has already prompted a couple more students to take advantage of the pantry’s offerings, he said.
Those offerings include cans of ravioli, stew and soup; cups of applesauce; jars of peanut butter; boxes of macaroni and cheese, rice and pancake mix; bags of cereal; and various snacks.
“You see their eyes light up when they see what it looks like,” Gibson said.
The pantry also stocks detergent, toothpaste, deodorant and feminine hygiene products among other household items and toiletries, and clothing.
“I think it helps them,” senior Seantya Brown said of struggling families. Seantya and sophomores Cara Nehlen and Casey Miller stocked the shelves during an Oct. 19 open house, providing the photo opportunity for local news media.
Cara said she hopes the pantry carries on long after she has left school.
“It’s really useful,” she said.
The student involvement shows something that Iberis said he has seen at other schools – there’s no disconnect between the haves and the have nots.
“They don’t stigmatize the need,” he said of students.
Sure, there are kids in need, but there are kids who want to help their peers, Iberis said.
“The kids at that age are building compassion,” he said. “That shows that there’s a lot of hope for the younger generation.”
“Our kids genuinely care about one another,” Gibson said. “We spend seven hours a day together. We get along. It’s like a family. If somebody is struggling, they’ll speak up. They’ll tell a teacher, or me or Mrs. (Dawn) Burns, our school secretary, or Mrs. (Heather) Huff, our guidance counselor.”
Second Harvest supplies 22 school-based food pantries in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties, Iberis said. The first school-based pantry opened 2.5 years ago in Boardman.
Second Harvest also supplies the Backpack Program and the Salvation Army food pantry at Living Waters Church and the food pantry at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, both in Brookfield Township.