Article published in Beacon News, December 25th, 2018
Next to the metal shelves temporarily lining a bright, new hallway at East Aurora High School, Dick Schindel handed boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese to students who added them to bags with frozen meat, snacks, milk and baby carrots.
Schindel, a 1966 East High graduate who taught at the school for decades, has regularly returned to his alma mater to volunteer at the twice-monthly student food pantry during its first year. Though he retired nearly 15 years ago, he still considers East Aurora his school.
“There’s obviously a need in the community,” he said. “And if there’s something that I can do, that we can do, to help, then we’re very willing to do that.”
The Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry is nearing the end of its first year in its new location at East Aurora High School, and volunteers like Schindel have been key to its success, said Cathy Ferrel, coordinator of the East Aurora pantry. The pantry now provides food to community members on Saturdays and students twice a month after school.
Cathy Ferrel helps East Aurora High School students register before they go through the food pantry line. (Sarah Freishtat / The Beacon-News)
It opened in January after school to serve students, and roughly 125 to 150 kids show up each time it’s open, Ferrel said. Sometimes coaches send students over before practice to fill a bag, and sometimes students come after study hall or before they catch the late bus home from school.
The pantry goes beyond only providing food. Pantry leaders discovered many students are responsible for cooking meals at home at least some of the time, so they began giving out menu plans based on the items available at the pantry to help kids make quick, filling and, hopefully, tasty meals, said Ginger Neenan, a pantry volunteer who helps coordinate the student program. She hopes to have pantry representatives soon talk to student health classes about food insecurity and getting food to families.
“We’re trying to make the families’ lives easier,” she said. “We’re trying to make the kids lives easier. We’re trying to educate them.”
Schindel said when he heard about the pantry, he thought students might not use it out of pride, or perhaps fear about their friends’ reactions.
But he was wrong, he quickly added. The pantry is growing, and students seem to be understanding of why someone might be visiting the pantry, he said.
The Marie Wilkinson pantry at East Aurora High School has become a community effort. Members of a student group help carry heavy bags of food out to students’ cars or the bus, Neenan said. The school’s culinary arts program cooked food for a pantry fundraiser, and the Naval Junior ROTC students helped bus tables at the event. Students in the transition program, a program for older students with special needs, help unload and sort the food when it arrives at the pantry, she said.
Food provided through the pantry is recovered from grocery stores and East Aurora District 131 school meals and snacks, and comes from the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Some food comes from East Aurora High School’s community garden, Neenan said.
Teachers help make sure their students know the pantry is an option, and coaches sometimes fill up a cart full of snacks from the pantry to keep on hand for team trips. Sometimes extra items, such as toiletries, come from other community organizations, and sometimes the pantry gives extra, unhealthy candy to other student groups for a holiday party or special event, Ferrel said. Volunteers, including many East High grads like Schindel, have come forward to help out, she said.
The first year has not been without its challenges, Ferrel said. Trying to get the word out was perhaps the biggest.
But the pantry is now looking to grow. A new program is in the works to provide emergency food bags at schools, allowing a staff member or teacher to send a student home with food if they see an immediate problem, Ferrel said. Student groups sometimes come by to volunteer at the community pantry on Saturdays.
“The whole school has embraced us,” Ferrel said.