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story.lead_photo.caption Crystal Certain, right, a Conway High School art teacher, stands with Myracle White, front, food-pantry coordinator for the Community Action Program for Central Arkansas in Conway, and Melissa Allen, community programs director. Certain started a food pantry in her classroom, and CAPCA is operating the pantry for the summer. All students in Faulkner County are welcome to get two weeks’ worth of food from the pantry. More information is available by calling (501) 329-3891 or going to the agency at 707 Robins St., Suite 118.

Conway High School art teacher Crystal Certain kept snacks in a desk drawer for hungry students, but there was so much need, the practice grew into a classroom food-pantry project.

She opened the pantry to all the high school kids, and her students named it Certain Little Free Class Pantry. For the summer, the Community Action Program of Central Arkansas, 707 Robins St., Suite 118, in Conway, is operating the project from inside the agency’s pantry.

Melissa Allen, director of community programs for CAPCA, said she is impressed with Certain.

“She saw that the kids were hungry, so she started out of her own pocket bringing food in, and it exploded into something great,” Allen said. “I’ve been super impressed and amazed by her going up and beyond. She just saw a need and stepped up.”

Certain said she never dreamed the pantry project would get so big.

“Most teachers keep what we call an invisible safety net for kids who are hungry,” Certain said. “I had a kid who was eating from that drawer almost daily. Finally, he talked to me. He said there wasn’t enough food at home. He had to make sure his brothers and sisters ate first.

“These are big kids; free and reduced-priced lunch only goes so far.”

Certain said she talked to her classes, all 150 students, to get their ideas about how to help.

“They’re the ones who helped me start the Facebook page. They named it

Certain Little Free Class Pantry because they think my last name is so hilarious. Some girls who do code are building a website for us. The idea was to make sure the kids have the ownership; it’s not me doing it,” Certain said.

She said the classes discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory in psychology that includes, “If someone’s physical needs aren’t met, they can’t learn. If you’re hungry, you can’t learn.”

“Within the first week, students were saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend, can I bring him in?’ Within a week of having it open, we started having some serious additional traffic. I said, ‘What are we going to do about this?’”

Her students suggested they open the pantry to anyone at the high school.

“It’s nice to stop and talk about empathy and how do we take care of each other? Having 150 kids who have ideas is a phenomenal resource because our kids are awesome,” Certain said.

“At that point, it’s not charity, it’s a project — something we all can take ownership in,” she said. “It went from a shelf to a shelving unit. It is now half of my closet, which is a large closet.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to ask why you’re hungry. It doesn’t matter to me if you forgot your breakfast or don’t have enough food.’”

On the busiest day, 390 students got food from the pantry. Certain said enrollment at the high school is more than 2,000 students.

“When you look at the statistics for food insecurity for kids in Arkansas — we’re No. 2 in the nation for food insecurity for kids — the number’s actually kind of low,” she said.

Someone suggested that she create an Amazon wish list for food, which she did. The list is available on the pantry’s Facebook page.

Food can be bought at any grocery store, too, Certain said.

“We have to do shelf-stable items, but kids love it when we get fresh fruit. They will pick a banana over candy any day,” she said.

Certain said the pantry has received donations from school and community organizations.

Boy Scout Troop 534 donates almost every week; church groups, individuals — we’ve had donations via Amazon as far away as the United Kingdom. I knew one of our donors from the U.K., and she started talking to her friends.”

With orders on Amazon, notes can be written to the recipient, Certain said. She printed those notes and put them on the door to the food closet.

“Kids pass those every time they go in,” she said. “It’s just that positive affirmation — these people care; they want you to be fed. It’s just building that idea of community. It can be as close as your second-period class or as far away as Canada.”

Certain said she talked to the school board about the pantry project, and she received donations from a couple of board members and a “lovely letter” from another.

“We had some hiccups because we had to figure out how we were getting those kids through my room,” she said, “and they had to get to their next class on time.

“The administration rode it out with us and has been incredibly supportive. The original intent wasn’t to feed 400 kids a day.”

Certain, who has three microwaves in her classroom, even stayed until 4:30 some days so students could have dinner before going to work.

But school was out in May. What would happen to those hungry kids?

Certain put her dilemma on the Facebook page, asking for help or ideas. Allen answered.

“I told her we would provide a food pantry over the summer. We’d put out a wish list and give out that food only to the students. Anything that’s left, we’ll turn over to her,” Allen said.

Certain, before school was out, gave applications to all students so no one would feel singled out, Allen said.

The Certain Little Free Class Food Pantry has several shelves in the regular pantry at CAPCA, which is open from

8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday but is closed from noon to 1 p.m.

Students do not have to show proof of income.

“Students just need to come in and say they’re here for the student pantry, then just sign for their food. A card will be created the first time,” she said.

Students in Faulkner County, not just Conway, may get two weeks’ worth of food.

“They get breakfast, lunch and two snacks a day for every student in the house,” Allen said. “They get 14 breakfast items, 14 lunch items and 28 snacks.”

She said students will get to choose their food, but it’s a learning opportunity, too.

“We want it to be student choice, but we need to teach them,” she said. “We may give a recipe for salmon that was donated, for example.”

Certain gave CAPCA the leftover food in her classroom pantry, and Allen has an Amazon wish list, as well, on the CAPCA Facebook page.

Donations have been made, but as of early June, no students had used the pantry.

However, Certain also started a pantry cart for summer school. A counselor called her and said a student had a need, and Certain provided food. She said some of those students might not have transportation to CAPCA.

Allen said she may make up bags to take to summer-school students.

“We’re thinking the word hasn’t gotten out,” Allen said of the student pantry at CAPCA. “We keep thinking if the word does get around, [the food supplies] will go really quickly.”

Certain said the Certain Little Free Class Pantry will be back up and running in the fall.

“As long as it’s working, it’s working. I’ll have a new group of kids, and I’m sure they’ll have new ideas,” she said.

Her dream is to have a dedicated space at the high school for the pantry.

“A dedicated place at school would be wonderful. It’s about finding space and dedicated personnel; it becomes a challenge. The thing about public schools … everybody in that school has about six different hats. I’m happy to do it as long as it’s working,” she said.

“This is something that’s not about me, and I never want it to be about me. It’s about being a steward. It’s really about the kids,” Certain said.

“I’ve got three boys of my own,” she said. They’ve helped her with the pantry project, too. “One of the things my husband and I have tried to instill in them is, ‘Don’t just say there’s a problem; do what you can.’ If we all do what we can, pretty soon, there won’t be a problem.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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