By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2015-07-23 09:31:10
The volunteer efforts of three school nutrition professionals give new meaning to community service. When bright-eyed, eager students take their seats in the classroom this month and next for a fresh new school year, some of them might have a secret behind those big eyes that most of their teachers and peers don’t know—they’re coming from homes where hunger is a year-round reality. Though each new school year brings a measure of promise for these children, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) reminds us: “The many and varied effects of poverty form the single greatest factor limiting student achievement.” Of course, if there’s anyone in the school who knows the deprivation these kids experience, it’s the school nutrition staff. You know which children are lining up early for school breakfast on Monday because it’s been a long weekend. You know the students who never complain about the menu choices, but eat almost everything they are served. You know these kids, and because you do, you worry about how they get by when school is closed for holidays, inclement weather and teacher workdays. For that reason, many SNA members are actively involved in outreach that goes beyond the school cafeteria, investing personal time in efforts to bridge the hunger gap and promote partnerships to support low-income households with meals and nutrition education. Three of these members—Nancy Younglove, Cathy Potter and Sandi Kramer—were recognized as School Nutrition Heroes in 2014 and 2015 for their outstanding community leadership. The award is bestowed by the School Nutrition Foundation (SNF), SNA’s philanthropic sister organization. Of course, there is much more to their stories than what is hinted at by their names on a press release. School Nutrition’s annual back-to-school issue is an excellent venue to showcase their award-worthy determination to go above and beyond in making a difference one soul at a time. Let these brief chronicles serve to inspire more readers to similar community action. The Proof Is in the Pantry Nancy Younglove Cougar Cupboard Food Pantry Wolcott, N.Y. Students and families served by the Cougar Cupboard Food Pantry are often hesitant to ask for or receive help. “One high school student was reluctant to accept charity,” recalls Younglove. “The next time I saw him [at the pantry], he brought his father. I was about to direct the two of them to the pickup area, when the student said, ‘We’re here to volunteer and help out.’ That happens often, and it’s great to see. Time passed, and he made it to college. When I saw him a few years later, he said, ‘Ms. Younglove, I’ve decided to major in social work.’” Seven years ago, Younglove’s encounters with at-risk students were distressingly frequent. In 2008, when she began her tenure as foodservice director for North Rose-Wolcott (N.Y.) Central School District, the nation had entered a deep recession. “We’re a rural area without a big economic base,” she explains. “People were losing their jobs and their homes.” In a school district where more than two-thirds of students are historically eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, she continues, “You can imagine how hard families were hit as the recession worsened. I went from processing one or two free meal applications per week, to receiving three to five applications per day. More than once, I had high school students come into my office, in tears, because their families didn’t have enough to eat.” One day in 2011, Younglove’s heart was especially heavy. She went home early to de-stress, turned on the television at random and happened on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show that documented “The New Look of Hunger in America.” The problem, she learned, was occurring not just in her community, but nationwide. “I thought to myself, ‘People need to know this,’” recounts Younglove. The next morning she asked permission from the school superintendent to try to raise community awareness of the issue of poverty in their own backyard. “He was enthusiastic about me speaking to local groups on hunger issues,” she recollects. “But then he asked, ‘What do you want people to do with this information?’” It was a good question. What good is awareness without subsequent action? For suggestions, she reached out to Tom Ferraro, founder and longtime director of Foodlink, a regional food bank based in Rochester, N.Y. Ferarro, who has since passed away, not only pledged to help Younglove raise startup funds for a local hunger-relief initiative, but also offered to put the resulting project under the Foodlink umbrella, so donors could receive tax deductions. “But what, exactly, did I want to start?” Younglove recalls asking herself. For a small community like Wolcott, establishing a food pantry in an existing central location—like the high school—seemed to make the most sense. A school setting also would eliminate any religious affiliation obstacles for potential clients. Her intent was to research similar models to use as a foundation for a local plan. “But as I searched on the Internet, I couldn’t find pantries—anywhere—that were accessible through a school building.” She was on her own, but not for long. Younglove mentioned her idea to the high school athletic director, who then mentioned it to others. Within a day, four people had volunteered to serve on an executive committee. Then she spoke to her boss, the school business administrator. To be allocated school space, the new Cougar Cupboard—named for the high school mascot—must be established as a student organization. The next step was presenting the project to community groups to raise startup funds and volunteer support. A summer fund drive put Younglove over the top, and the food pantry was open for business in September 2012. “After that,” she adds, “I made a presentation at our school district’s annual inservice meeting, which really helped bring in dollars and volunteers.” Today the (officially named) Cougar Cupboard Activity Club has two administrative components. The first is the student organization. The students “do all the promotional work by making fliers and advertisements, working at fundraising events and handing out information at public presentations,” she explains. The second component is the recent chartering of an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization, also named Cougar Cupboard Activity Club, of which Younglove is chief executive officer. Thus, the student group handles promotional activities, while the nonprofit organization can be officially separate from the school system and collect tax-deductible donations. “Our budget is whatever donations we get,” continues Younglove. “One-hundred percent of the money donated goes directly to purchasing food for the pantry. We have no paid staff and we don’t have to pay for rent or insurance, because the pantry is in the school.” Through her contacts as a school nutrition director, Younglove has secured food donations from manufacturers and food brokers. Initial support for the Cougar Cupboard also came from the New York School Nutrition Association (NYSNA). “I’ve used my networking through SNA and NYSNA to make even more connections and generate donations,” she reports. Food is provided to area families by Cougar Cupboard on request and without means testing and without application forms or other paper work. “If a student asks, then we call a parent to confirm,” says Younglove. “Also, we get referrals from guidance counselors, teachers and principals.” In a district with only 1,250 enrolled students, the pantry in 2014 served more than 650 families. Each time, every member of the family receives three breakfasts, three lunches and three dinners. All items are prepackaged and nonperishable. Furthermore, Younglove asks parents if any family members have food allergies. “Assistance is given on a one-time basis, per request, rather than provided to any family on a continuing basis,” she adds. “The pantry is open during the fall, spring and summer on days when school is open. Parents make appointments to pick up their food. And we can handle pickups outside of school hours, as long as the school is open that day.” For her efforts, Younglove was recognized by Wolcott in 2014 as its Citizen of the Year. Moreover, the community awareness and support generated by Cougar Cupboard has enabled Younglove to launch a mobile pantry and resurrect a monthly backpack program that had been terminated previously for lack of funds—still on top of the full-time job administering the school nutrition department. “We’ve also become a national model for school-based food pantries,” she adds, “and I’ve personally helped school districts in three states” start similar initiatives. Do you see a hunger gap that you can work to help fill outside of the school meals program? “Do your research,” Younglove advises, encouraging her peers to reach out to existing community food banks and pantries to determine how best they can help. Remember, she says, “Kids who aren’t hungry are kinder and gentler to their classmates. And, just as important, eliminating hunger takes away a distraction that would otherwise affect their learning.” Where the Heart Is Cathy Potter The Heaven Sent Home Maryville, Tenn. Homelessness can happen to anyone. “Something happens, you reach a tipping point and you give up,” observes Cathy Potter, CEO and director of The Heaven Sent Home in Maryville, Tenn., as well as a foodservice worker at the local high school. “I remember a stockbroker who lost all his money in the market, and a college professor who lost his wife and child in a horrible car accident” who both became homeless. Holding down a job and paying the bills can become an insurmountable challenge, especially when “People self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to cope with a seemingly insurmountable problem in their lives—perhaps childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse or the loss of a loved one,” she notes. Some former residents of The Heaven Sent Home emergency shelters range from nurses and paramedics to lawyers and business professionals who certainly never expected to find themselves or their families without a roof over their heads; others have lived on the precipice all their lives. When Potter founded The Heaven Sent Home in 2003, “I thought that I could help everybody .” Over the years, she has learned that “some people only want a handout, but aren’t willing to do their part and make a change.” She estimates that 70% of residents who go through one of her shelters end up back on the streets or in jail, while 20% continue to teeter between reform and relapse. Still, Potter is not easily discouraged. “In the past dozen years, we’ve sheltered more than 5,000 people,” she reports. “The 10% who have straightened out their lives adds up to a lot of success stories—people who’ve put their families back together, parents who’ve gotten their kids back [from the social service system]. Some of them have come back to volunteer and help.” Potter left her native North Carolina nearly 40 years ago to take a factory job in Maryville. During her 18 years at the plant, she chaired the company’s community outreach team. When she left the factory job to open “Potter’s Country Kitchen” restaurant in 1998, she continued to serve the community with her “free” time, distributing food and clothing to homeless men and women in nearby Knoxville. In time, she grew concerned about the lack of homeless services in her own Blount County. After much prayer and contemplation, Potter decided to renovate a home that she owned, converting it to a women’s shelter that opened in January 2003. A few months later, a benefactor donated a second home, allowing Potter to open a second shelter, this one for men. Hers were—and still are—the only shelters in Blount county. The women’s home accommodates up to 15 women and children, while the men’s facility can house eight. “Because we’re still the only homeless shelters in the county, we get referrals all the time,” relates Potter. “Then we do whatever it takes to help our residents—maybe helping them find a job or a place to live, or taking them to parenting classes or to meetings with their probation officers.” Residents are provided food for three meals a day, but must cook for themselves. “And, yes,” Potter, the former restaurateur and current school nutrition employee, notes, “we’ve taught cooking skills to a lot of people.” Potter’s Christian faith is a fundamental aspect of her ministry to Blount County’s homeless population; residents participate in Bible studies twice a week and attend church on Sunday. Not long after opening The Heaven Sent Home shelters, Potter closed her restaurant, so she could “commute” to North Carolina and care for her ailing grandmother. Amazingly, she kept the shelter doors open through this period, adding to her to-do list the coordination of free weekly and monthly dinners at The Lord’s Disciples Church. Meals served there each Monday and Tuesday attract up to 40 people, while dinners held the first Saturday of each month often bring in more than 200. In 2010, Potter became a substitute foodservice worker at Maryville High School and was offered a permanent position a year later. Since then, she finds her work in school nutrition and community outreach are natural complements. “Having worked in the school cafeteria, I now pay more attention to the nutritional value of the food we provide at The Heaven Sent Home,” she says. “By being involved in SNA and Tennessee School Nutrition Association, I’ve picked up lots of great ideas that we’ve been able to use at the homes.” By the same token, Potter says her community work makes her more effective at school. “My work with the homeless,” she explains, “gives me more heart, more compassion and more humility to serve our kids at school. When I see students who might be in need, I know that even a smile, a kind word and a little extra on the plate can make a difference.” Her positive attitude belies some long, tough days. She works at Maryville High School each weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and then works at the shelters, often until 7 or 8 at night. As CEO and director, she supervises about 10 regular volunteers—yet she receives no salary, nor does her operation receive any government funding. Instead, the shelters are sustained financially by area churches. Potter counsels others who are called to coordinate a similar outreach effort to “Get educated, do your homework and be prepared to learn through trial and error.” In her case, the lessons were often hard won and at times discouraging. But she carries on. “In 2003, I originally told the Lord that I’d run the homes for five years,” Potter recalls. “Then at the end of five years, I went to the church, knelt at the altar and sought the Lord. He answered, ‘You’re the one who said five years, not me.’ So I’m still going at it!” A Pack That Fills a Lack Sandi Kramer Sack Pack Program Angel Fund Yankton, S.D. One student takes her weekly Sack Pack and stores its contents in the family cupboard, patiently waiting until the end of the month, ensuring that she and her single mom will have something to eat when their money runs out. Another student lives with her parents, six siblings and grandfather in a single apartment. Her Sack Pack is shared with Grandpa to make sure that he, too, gets enough to eat. Similar stories are often heard by Sandi Kramer, child nutrition director for the Yankton (S.D.) School District. She has spearheaded the Sack Pack program since its launch in 2010 as an initiative wholly separate from the district’s school meals program. “We started serving one school,” she says, “and then added more, one at a time. Now we serve all the elementary schools in the district, plus a Head Start program—six sites in all.” This year, Sack Packs were provided to participants in the school district’s summer feeding program. In the future, Kramer hopes to roll out Sack Packs at the high school, too. “It’s all been made possible through the financial support of local businesses, churches, student councils and individuals,” she reports. From an initial 100 Sack Packs distributed per week in 2010, the program now distributes weekend meals to more than 400 needy students. Kramer plans the menus, which feature prepackaged components; she procures the food from a local grocery store that provides items at just above cost. Each Sack Pack tote bag contains two breakfast items, two shelf-stable heat-and-serve entrees (such as soup or non-frozen microwave dinners), two fruit juice drinks, two fresh fruits (ones that transport well and don’t bruise easily), two fruit cups and a healthy snack. Twice a month, shelf-stable milk is also provided. In addition to hearing the stories that affirm the program truly makes a difference to families in her community, Kramer’s delights in the weekly packing time. “Every Wednesday,” she relates, “a different group comes out to volunteer. One week it might be a church youth group, and the next week it might be the lawyers association. We set up an assembly line, and everyone has fun!” Now entering its sixth year, the Sack Pack program runs smoothly. Notices and forms are sent home with students at the start of the school year. Parents are asked to sign up for the program, and each school sends Kramer a list of participating students broken down by classroom. Each Wednesday, volunteers fill the Packs using standard plastic grocery bags donated by an area store. On Thursdays, various community agencies and even the local prison send helpers to load the tote boxes filled with the Packs into transit vans that are made available by the city. At each school, student councils take over, organizing the unloading and delivery of the tote boxes to each classroom. On Fridays, individual teachers distribute the Packs to participating students. “At first, we worried that distributing Packs through each class might carry some stigma for the students,” Kramer notes. “But it’s been handled quietly and confidentially, so that stigma hasn’t been a problem.” The Sack Pack program has been a heartwarming extra to Kramer’s work in the Yankton School District. And there’s so much about her primary school nutrition responsibilities that give her satisfaction, too—with one major exception. “The least favorite part is collecting overdue money from students for our regular school lunch program,” she admits. But rather than grimace and bear with it, Kramer tapped into her charitable connections and in SY2013–14 launched an Angel Fund at each Yankton school. “When kids are behind on their lunch accounts, it’s not their fault. I don’t want them to go hungry.” With the cushion provided by the monies donated to the Angel Fund, Kramer can contact a parent and offer one-time assistance to get a child’s lunch account caught up. “The start of the school year can be difficult, because parents have to buy school supplies and fund their children’s lunch accounts,” she explains. “Holidays are also difficult times. Or a family may have applied for free or reduced-priced meals and are simply waiting for the paperwork to be processed.” For Kramer, the work of the Angel Fund is typified by another story. “One high school girl was prepared to go without food so that her younger brother and sister could afford to eat,” she recounts. “When I offered her some help from the Angel Fund, she simply broke down and cried.” Encounters like this have helped Kramer, now in her 32nd year at Yankton, to stay engaged and enthusiastic, despite the challenges. “Retirement is several years away,” she affirms. “But even when the time comes, I plan to continue helping with the Sack Pack program and being involved in our community.” Mark Ward is a freelance writer based in Victoria, Texas. Phototography by jiunlimited.com.
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