BEEBE — Teaching children is always a school’s first priority, but it can be hard to teach when stomachs are grumbling.
In Beebe, the school district is planning to extend its efforts to get food into those grumbling stomachs.
Beebe School District Superintendent Belinda Shook and Beebe Board of Education member Janet Hines are working with the Arkansas Foodbank to establish a food pantry on school property.
“The Arkansas Foodbank sent out a memo that they had done a couple of pilot studies in a couple schools about setting up a food pantry within the schools just to serve the students and their families,” Hines said. “I knew at that point that Beebe schools already had a backpack program where they send backpacks full of food home with some of the children, and I thought that would be an easy way to help meet more needs.”
Dianne Williams, chief program officer with the Arkansas Foodbank, said the foodbank started the pilot program after the organization did an evaluation of its children’s programs and found that backpack programs in several schools meet some needs, but there is often not enough food for the whole family.
“We thought we could supplement the backpack food with other food to help the entire family,” she said.
The Arkansas Foodbank piloted food pantries at three schools with various demographics and challenges, which Williams said helped identify potential problems and suggestions for other school districts.
“We found out we have to be very flexible,” she said.
The Arkansas Foodbank serves 33 counties, and Williams said that after the success of the pilot program, the organization is prepared to work with the schools in the area to increase distribution of food to families in need.
“One of the things we know is that almost every school has someone on campus who’s providing food to children in some way,” she said. “We decided the food pantries were a way to help both the children and their families.”
In Beebe schools, Hines and Shook said, counselors have a good idea of which students are in need.
“Our counselors take care of our kids,” Shook said. “One of our high school counselors has access to the downtown foodbank. I know other counselors send home food [with students] as well.”
Shook said Beebe schools already have initiatives to make sure children have food, including the backpack program and Breakfast in the Classroom, in which all students in Badger Elementary and Beebe Elementary schools receive breakfast before class starts.
“We know we have a lot of families in need,” Shook said. “We have about 60 percent free and reduced-rate lunches in our lower buildings.”
Shook and Hines, along with some other school employees, met with Arkansas Foodbank personnel about the prospect of opening a food pantry on school property. The two women presented the idea to the Beebe Board of Education in March, and it was approved by the board.
The food will be purchased from the Arkansas Foodbank, and the Beebe School District pantry will accept donations from the community. The district is also considering reaching out for grants through the food bank.
“There’s a matching grant from an anonymous donor for up to $2,000 specifically for this program,” Hines said. “Hopefully, that will kick this off, and with donations and food drives, this will be very cost effective, I think.”
Additionally, Shook said, teachers could utilize the food pantry as a basis for teaching certain skills in the classroom.
“One of my teachers mentioned that she wants her students to be involved in community service,” Shook said. “What we want to do is try to get some of our career and technical teachers involved, maybe with cooking lessons and recipes.”
Currently, the plan is to have the food pantry ready to go once school starts back up in the fall. The food pantry will be between the two elementary schools in buildings the district had used for prekindergarten in the past, and the pantry will be open once a month. Volunteers — many of whom will likely be high school students — will help run the pantry.
Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.