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Lessons in Kindness

August 18, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011
By Linda Bock
Telegram & Gazette Staff
(c) Telegram & Gazette

 —  Ten brave high school students admitted they were hungry last year by stepping forward at South High Community School. 

Those students — and deteriorating economic conditions — were the impetus for Principal Maureen Binienda, her staff, and the school's partner, Family Health Center of Worcester, to open a food pantry at the high school last November for students and their families.

The food pantry, believed to be the first and only one in the Worcester public schools, provided food for 86 families last year and is now stocked and ready for the new school year.

“This year,” Ms. Binienda said. “I'm sure we'll do more.”

Housed in a small exam room near the school-based health center, the pantry's most popular items are bags of long-grained white rice and dried beans. The least popular are canned goods — somewhat a surprise to the staff who teach students from 70 countries. 

“It turns out they don't have canned goods in Africa,” Ms. Binienda said. Cereal and pasta are also popular, as well as macaroni and cheese. There is a box of jars of baby food. The high school operates a school-based day care center. 

The food pantry was a logical extension of the health center, according to Eileen Keane, a nurse practitioner at the school's health center. 

The health center is one of six full-service health centers operating in Worcester schools. 

These centers work closely with students and their parents to provide primary health services, sports medicine, emergency services, immunization, dental services and wellness and exercise programs.

“This is the intersection where health and education meet,” Ms. Keane said pointing to the rows of food stacked on shelves in the makeshift food pantry. 

The food pantry works so well, Ms. Binienda said, because students do not have to fill out paperwork, provide identification or submit their families' income information.

Food pantries are also present in the Fitchburg school system.

National Honor Society students started a food pantry at Fitchburg High School in 2008 and named it the Red Raiders Marketplace. The Arthur M. Longsjo Jr. Middle School opened a food pantry last year and administrators are looking at launching another food pantry at the elementary school level this year, according to Superintendent Andre R. Ravenelle.

Approximately 350 students were homeless in Fitchburg last year, according to the superintendent. At South High, counting student refugees, there were approximately 177 homeless students, officials said.

“And those are the ones that we identified,” Ms Binienda said. 

Mr. Ravenelle said there are some misconceptions about homelessness. He said with recent foreclosures, students living with relatives may be classified as homeless.

“Homelessness has a very different definition today,” Mr. Ravenelle said. “Homelessness doesn't dictate anything but homelessness.”

The students who said they were hungry did so during Hunger Week, held the week before Thanksgiving. Ms. Binienda began Hunger Week four years ago as a school-wide initiative that would combine curriculum with service and connect to the Main South community.

During Hunger Week, students immerse themselves in the study of hunger and hunger-related issues in science, language arts, math, social studies and service learning classes. For example, students read novels, poems and literary works on hunger and poverty and then listened as Holocaust survivor Thea Aschkenase shared her story, including her experiences with hunger. “Hunger is directly an issue for some of our students. We want kids to know what's available for them.”

For the first three years of Hunger Week, administrators and teachers asked students to let them know if they or their families were hungry. 

“We never got too many kids,” Ms. Binienda said. But that changed last year when the economy changed for the worse. “More parents were unemployed. They had to pays bills instead of buying food.”

When those 10 students stepped forward, Ms. Binienda said, “We knew we probably had more hungry kids.”

Sue Sleigh, a nurse at the health center, said the staff studied how to make the food pantry accessible to students, who might be sensitive to asking for help. 

“We researched how could we get the food into the hands of the students and their families,” Ms. Sleigh said.

The solution was backpacks, which offer privacy and are inconspicuous at a school setting.
Staff members in both cities keep the school pantries stocked with food and toiletries. Many teachers shop for the food pantries along with their weekly shopping in both districts.

“A lot of our kids are forced with making a decision on whether to eat, or to buy toiletries,” Mr. Ravenelle said. “Kids often go to the food pantry after school. It's done respectfully, and kids don't feel intimidated anymore. It's been a great program for us.”

In Worcester, South High also has some community partners who have contributed money and held food drives to help support the school Hanover Theater has adopted their food pantry, Multiple Listing Service held a food drive, and Unum Group is holding a food drive on August 29. Fallon Clinic took up a collection at Christmas and donated $2,500. Workers at Central Massachusetts Podiatry took a dozen ethnically diverse students to a Wal-Mart and gave them each $75 to shop for foods their families would enjoy. Paxton dental donated boxes of tooth brushes and St. Luke's Episcopal Church has also helped out the food pantry.

Ms. Binienda said the next step for the South High students is to help them connect with other food pantries in the area, such as Sacred Heart Church on Cambridge Street, especially for produce and milk.

“It's not the fault of any of these kids that they're homeless,” Mr. Ravenelle said. “The divide is getting bigger and bigger.” 

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