SPRINGDALE -- The Springdale School District is preparing to open a food pantry that administrators say is unlike any other district pantry in Northwest Arkansas.
Treehouse Pantry, projected to open at the end of this month, will feature free food, school supplies, health and hygiene items, and essential clothing, said Damon Donnell, the school district's student services director.
The pantry will also have staff members to help families connect with services such as food stamps, health care and community resources, he said.
"Our whole mission here is to remove barriers to a student's academic and social success," Donnell said. "If you don't have food, and your stomach's growling the whole time, you're probably not going to do real well in school."
The pantry is being established in a 3,000-square-foot building at 706 W. Allen Ave. that was purchased through an anonymous $400,000 donation from a Springdale High School graduate about a year ago, Donnell said. The district paid about $250,000 and spent about $150,000 to remodel it, he said.
Food insecurity in Northwest Arkansas remains high during the covid-19 pandemic, said Julie Damer, Northwest Arkansas Food Bank marketing and communications director.
Feeding America defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. Feeding America is a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects a nationwide network of food banks.
The number of food-insecure people in the four counties the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank serves -- Benton, Washington, Carroll and Madison -- has jumped from about 65,000 before the covid-19 pandemic to about 100,000 now, Damer said.
"We don't expect that number to decrease anytime soon," she said.
Donnell said Treehouse Pantry plans to open in five phases. It is beginning donation distributions at the end of this month, then delivering donations to school food pantries, establishing social services, creating student internships and volunteer opportunities, and opening a community store.
Each phase will take one to three months to implement, Donnell said.
The social services staff will be able to connect people with resources they may not know about or may find confusing to navigate, he said.
"It might be as simple as 'I'm not able to feed my family because I don't have an ID, and I don't have an ID because I don't have a birth certificate,'" said Sarah Jones, coordinated school health coordinator.
Patrons will even have opportunities to consult with medical personnel through the pantry, Donnell said.
"A family can come in and actually visit with the doctor right here via telehealth," he said.
The community store will feature free, culturally appropriate food items for patrons, he said.
More than 47% of the district's students are Hispanic, according to Arkansas Department of Education data, while about 33% are non-Hispanic white, 13.4% are Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 2.3% are Black, 1.6% are Asian, 0.5% are American Indian and 1.4% are two or more races.
"I can give a family a box of food, and if it's not what they want to eat, then really you're spinning your wheels," Donnell said.
The pantry will have the capacity to serve 3,000 district families when it's fully operational, he said.
Treehouse Pantry will serve in addition to the food pantries at most Springdale schools, Donnell said. The pantry won't be funded through the district and will be stocked through community partnerships and donations, he said.
Tyson Foods is donating a $150,000 drive-in freezer -- capable of holding 30 pallets of food-- that will be stocked with protein, and Samaritan's Feet will keep shoes stocked at the pantry, he said.
The Northwest Arkansas Food Bank is donating a $15,000 cooler to store perishable food, said Sabrina Thiede, the food bank's director of programs.
The Treehouse Pantry is one of several school district-offered resources in Northwest Arkansas.
The Rogers School District created the Online Family Support Center last school year to provide information on area food banks, health care and mental health services, financial assistance, and district pantries, said Sharon Langston-Daniels, district counseling director.
The district also has food pantries at several schools, she said.
The Bentonville School District offers small pantries at Grimsley Junior High School and Creekside and Barker middle schools, and a large pantry at Bentonville High School, said Amanda Musick, student services director.
The district's social work department also offers a pantry -- featuring food, hygiene items, clothing, housing supplies and school supplies -- that serves about 200 families at the Child Enrichment Services Center, she said.
"Rarely do we have families come here for food. We're actually bringing it to them as we can," said Gabrielle Steen, a social worker. "It's very rare for our families that we work with to have access to the meat products that Tyson gives us. The families we work with rarely see that in community food pantries."
The Fayetteville School District has food pantries at Holt, McNair and Owl Creek middle schools and at Happy Hollow Elementary School, said Joy Shirley, student services director.
The Outback Food Pantry on the Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services campus serves all district families. The pantry offers fresh produce, frozen protein, staple food items, hygiene products, basic clothing and some cleaning supplies, Shirley said.
The pantry served 3,083 families in the 2020-21 school year and has supported more than 200 people so far this school year, she said.
Meeting students' basic needs is more important than ever as many families face unemployment or quarantines during the pandemic, said Jones, the Springdale district's coordinated school health coordinator. Social workers can hear the relief in people's voices when food and resources are provided to help families meet such needs, Jones said.
"You can't build trust until somebody knows that you care about them," she said. "I think the easiest way to care for somebody is to feed them."
Information on district food pantries and support services is available by contacting the following:
• Bentonville: https://www.bentonvillek12.org/SocialWork
• Fayetteville: https://district.fayar.net/o/fps/page/student-services—194
• Fort Smith: http://csclearinghouse.org/
• Springdale: https://www.sdale.org/o/springdale-public-schools/page/coordinated-school-health
• Rogers: https://www.rogersschools.net/familysupport
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette