ST. LOUIS — The three social workers responsible for students in the St. Louis suburb of Jennings used to spend hours trying to find food for kids and their families.
So administrators set out to create their own school food pantry, which now, through a partnership with the St. Louis Area Foodbank, has led to full shelves at an alternative school in the district.
"We see children all the time that come to school hungry," said Shelia Nicholson, director of student services for the district of about 2,800 students, 92 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch prices. "This is taking some of that load off of the social workers and providing a service for students and their families."
The Jennings Community Cupboard opened this fall and serves any family who has a child in the school district. Its ties to the Foodbank allow the district to bring in a steady stream of food.
The poor economy of the past few years has had schools searching for ways to keep their students fed. For some children, subsidized school breakfasts and lunches are their best meals of the week. To help them through the weekend, many schools now have programs that fill backpacks with food to last until school begins again Monday.
Less common are the school-based food pantries like the one in Jennings, although the idea is catching on across the country.
In 2010, 24 food banks operated more than 437 school pantry locations nationwide, giving out the equivalent of 8 million meals, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks. That has grown to 57 food banks participating this year, serving a total of about 18 million meals.
The Jennings location is the first school-based food pantry through the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
Through money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families through the state, the St. Louis Area Foodbank began the pantry in Jennings, with a hope to add more school food pantries in the next few years.
The food bank also supports agencies that provide backpack programs, but the food pantry is another avenue to reach families who need food, said Matt Dace, senior vice president of the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
"They're helping to stock the shelves of the homes of the kids they are responsible for teaching," he said. "It's easier for a parent to grab a 10-pound bag of potatoes than a child to lug it home in their backpack.
St. Louis Public Schools also have a few pantries, including one at the International Welcome School, where churches or other organizations provide food for kids and their families. And the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District has its "Weekend on Wheels" program, which began in 2011-12, delivering the food in rolling suitcases to the homes of 13 needy families every Friday.
At Jennings, students at the Educational Training School help operate the food pantry. One recent day, Tammy Jones, 19, helped bag up macaroni and cheese, onions, cereal and canned goods for Demetrius Harris, 32.
He has four children ages 5 through 9 in Jennings schools that he's trying to feed, in addition to his wife and his aunt, who the family now lives with after being evicted last year from their rental. Harris lost his job the previous year.
"If you have kids, there is no way to explain when you run out of food," said Shirley Caldwell, who was picking up food with her daughter-in-law, Lucretia Chissem, who has three kids of her own but also has taken in others.
The pantry has received thousands of pounds of food during the last 2 1/2 months from the St. Louis Area Foodbank, including sweet potatoes and chickens during the holidays. The school-based pantry also has a grant to order fresh fruits and vegetables.
"We see this as a way to provide the care and support people who are having a tough time need," Nicholson said.