Wake County is partnering with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to create food pantries at five high schools where more than half the students receive free or reduced-price meals.
The pantries are set up at East Wake, Knightdale, Longview, Mary Phillips and Southeast Raleigh high schools. The program is modeled after Enloe High School’s food pantry, which began two years ago.
Students and their families, as well as all members of the community, can go to the schools and get free food.
“Many of our students have problems outside of their control,” said Christine Williams, the pantry coordinator at Mary Phillips, an alternative school in Raleigh. “It’s difficult to get a child to pay attention in class when they’re hungry. The pantry will help them get what they need.”
Community leaders, including Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes and representatives from the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, visited the food pantry at Mary Phillips High School on Thursday. Shelves were stocked with potatoes, oranges, cereal, canned goods and more.
Wake County is spending $20,000 to fund the program this year, and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is supplying the food.
Social workers at the schools can refer students to pantry coordinators, or students can approach the coordinators on their own.
“The purpose of creating the pantry initiative is very simple: It’s to feed kids,” Holmes said. “Sometimes these kids don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, so the bottom line is to put the food where the kids are.”
The pantries are stocked with non-perishable goods and also fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.
“Fresh food is more nutritious,” said Julie Cox, who manages child hunger programs at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. “If people go to the grocery store ... ideally, they buy produce and so you want to provide that as an option for other people too.”
In Wake County, more than 35 percent of children under 18 are food insecure, and more than 37 percent receive subsidized school meals, according to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. The organization defines food insecurity as difficulty accessing “nutritious and adequate amounts of food necessary for an active and healthy life.”
Wake County has put a focus in recent years on addressing hunger. The county partnered with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in 2014 to open a food pantry at Enloe High School, where more than a third of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
In 2015, the Wake County Board of Commissioners provided $90,000 for the school system to expand the Universal Breakfast program into 13 more schools. The program, in place in 25 high-poverty elementary schools, provides all students with free breakfast, regardless of family income.
The county and school system have worked together to expand the Summer Food Service Program that provides low-income students with meals during summer break.
The Backpack Buddies program provides children with backpacks filled with food to eat during weekends. During the 2015-16 school year, the program served 2,879 children at 107 schools, according to Wake County.
Williams, who began working at Mary Phillips High School in 1988, said several programs are in place for younger students, but there is a need for more programs at high schools.
“This food pantry can improve their quality of life,” Williams said of students, “and that makes a big difference.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler