It began organically enough.
For years students at the Central High School District’s Meadowbrook Alternative Program High School were ensconced in assisting members of the Rock and Wrap It Up Foundation in Cedarhurst during the Holiday seasons to recover leftover and unused foods and distribute them to a special location in Roosevelt called the Rosa Parks House, a sanctuary home for single mothers.
The notion to MAP students of recovering unused foods that could be reused by residents who faced fiscal or food insecurities at the moment was consistent with the students’ growing idealism and developing compassions. They helped in recovering foods from the district’s middle schools and other food establishments to distribute for Thanksgiving and Christmas preparations , for example.
But for the approaching 2016 holiday season – and after the successes with the Rock and Wrap It Up organization – many MAP students’ thoughts turned to something more … radical: Why not turn their focus toward helping residents and families within the school district itself? they asked. They were certainly well versed over many years helping Rock and Wrap It Up on how to acquire foods, how to wrap or box them and how to find places that could use the foods.
Of course, as these events took place yearly at MAP, the district’s other schools had, for several years each Holiday season, been collecting foods for families as part of the students’ collective process in charitable giving for the Holiday season. “Buildings did their own food drives for district food pantries,” said Karin MacMahon, a food pantry co-founder (along with Darlene Boden, Tiffany Rzempoluch and Catrina Christenson) and physical education teacher at both MAP and Mepham. Students even collected for specific families within the neighborhood.
The precedent was clearly there for MAP students to turn their skills toward the community, as was the steady need to help those with temporary fiscal challenges.
“Students also needed credits for their social studies classes and other community courses they were taking, of course,” remarked Boden, nurse at MAP and co-founder of the food pantry – known formally as the Community Cupboard..
The students quickly envisioned recovering foods from the district’s middle school cafeterias – as they had with Rock and Wrap It Up – that were unopened, hadn’t been used and were not likely to be put out again for consumption, and turn it into what they would call a food pantry. They then took the idea of a pantry to MacMahon and Rzempoluch, another teacher at MAP.
The two teachers, in turn, took the students’ idea to Dr. Mara Bollettieri, deputy superintendent of the district. MacMahon remembers Dr. Bollettieri listening to their idea, saying little and looking pensive, deep in thought.
AMBASSADORS WEIGH IN
“Pensive is the right word,” Dr. Bollettieri said of the meeting. She told Your NewsMag that after that meeting she quickly contacted several school principals and social workers of the idea, and next took the idea to the district’s Ambassador students.
As a committee, the Ambassadors are composed of several students from each of the five schools that sit as a “think tank” to decide how to implement – across the schools – ideas given to them by Dr. Bollettieri. It is they who decide and develop the programs that have far-reaching impact in getting students involved for good causes. Of a food pantry that could be a location to store collected foods for residents of the communities, the Ambassadors enthusiastically approved of the plan.
“It was they who came up with the name of the Community Cupboard,” remarked Boden.
Your NewsMag spoke with three Ambassadors while visiting the Community Cupboard: Amanda La Rossa, a senior at Mepham High School and a Mepham cheerleader; Sabrina Jones, an eighth-grader at Merrick Avenue Middle School; and Dylan Lipman, a freshman at Kennedy High School.
Sabrina said the Ambassadors generally meet at the Brookside School to discuss topics for the year that are presented to them by Dr. Bollettieri ,and it is a big conference comprising several students from the five schools.
Dylan said that two topics put forth for this year by Dr. Bollettieri included cyber bullying .. and poverty. It is up to the Ambassadors to develop programs they can bring to Dr. Bollettieri so that she, in turn, can contact the various school administrators to discuss plans for implementing the themes.
But Amanda brought to the Ambassadors a clear human dimension to the notion – and need – of a community wide food pantry for families throughout the district.
She did not shy away in telling Your NewsMag she was once one of those families that needed assistance in obtaining foods from a local food pantry in order to continue as a family. Because of temporary fiscal challenges, she said that a local church pantry provided them with goods that kept them stable and as a family unit.
“I am very grateful for what I received from the community through the pantry, and now I am enthusiastic about working to pack items for families who are in a similar circumstance that I was once in,” she maintained.
Each of the ambassadors explained that they are always eager to fill the bags and boxes up with foods that can be taken to families that have requested them.
Sabrina noted that she can get exhausted from the excitement of working to fill the bags and boxes. “But it’s a good tired,” someone in the room announced to laughter.
UP AND RUNNING
Once the idea of the food pantry, or community cupboard, had been accepted, MacMahon said the MAP students were excited to get the pantry up-and-running. “We paired with our middle schools to drop off sealed or unused foods” that could be used as preparations for Thanksgiving dinners, she said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bollettieri met with a facilities manager at Brookside School in North Merrick, where the district’s administrative offices reside, and began choosing rooms that could be used as pantry space for collecting foods. There are now two rooms in operation with shelves for placing non-perishable boxes and cans, and for packing foods into bags and boxes, many with family names on them.
Superintendent John DeTommaso’s new communication that the district should promote a unified idea of “One Voice, One Message” throughout the schools took front-and-center in a suddenly expanding movement to collect foods and place them in one central location within the district to house all the collections of food from the schools. The food pantry became that central location.
SEASONAL NO MORE
One consequence of a food pantry is that, while there may be scores of donations from residents during the big Holiday seasons, such as Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Christmas, it runs a real risk of remaining bare much of the rest of the year.
“Our shelves are cleaned out and the pantry looks fairly skeletal,” Boden said of the “empty” feeling during the summer months, for example.
At the Community Cupboard meeting Catrina Christenson, another co- founder of the food pantry also involved with student personnel at the school, explained that for the last two years the district has held a Martin Luther King Jr. Day that specifically addresses the need to collect foods that can essentially be stored in the pantry to be available all year.
Mepham Principal Eric Gomez added that each of the grades in each of the five schools is assigned a specific type of food to bring in, such as ninth grade collecting cake mixes, 11th grade collecting dessert mixes, seniors collecting cans of vegetables, and so on. When all grades throughout the district contribute something different-yet-substantial the potential volume of foods increases, he inferred.
When the question of desserts mixes was raised, for example, as to whether such confections should be considered of health value to the families requesting the donations, Christenson said that young family members may have birthdays or wish to throw parties. “As a food pantry we will not make a judgment as to what they should receive,” she said. “With this food pantry we want to give them as normal a life as possible,” and cakes and sweets and parties are part of that full life.
This year the Stop & Shop supermarket in North Bellmore “adopted” the school district’s food pantry and split the proceeds raised to give to the pantry. Signs in the store for various foods purchased explained that a portion of the proceeds – 60% – would go toward the pantry.
Katey Pastore, an assistance manager at the supermarket, told Your NewsMag that each year the store looks for a food pantry to share proceeds with. “We had been looking for a pantry to give to,” and when attending a recent Chamber of Commerce of the Bellmores meeting she was introduced to school district ambassadors and volunteers, who told Pastore of the food pantry’s operations.
“I was so impressed by the students that had set up the pantry,” she said, and specifically to Amanda, who was recently a recipient of a food pantry and who was now “paying it forward.”
The store raised $500, which was matched by the corporation with another $500. The funds then went to purchase more foods for the pantry – potentially increasing its volume for the year.
With the increasing volume, Boden said the food pantry was now poised to serve well over 100 families in the district with food items to help them prepare for big dinners such as Thanksgiving and Christmas – and beyond.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the community cupboard in grasping the significance now assigned to the community cupboard is the development of a garden within the courtyard of Brookside School that will soon act as an integral operation toward providing fresh and wholesome foods to provide pantry recipients with ingredients to cook their own dinners.
Just begun, the garden will go into the winter months with students eager to nurture young seeds to be ready for spring planting into a real garden in the courtyard.
Mary Sweeney, a science teacher at MAP, told Your NewsMag that she teaches students to grow seeds in class. “These are heirloom seeds,” she said, rare seeds that may be out of existence one day but can be kept for growing anew each year.
The idea by students to begin a garden for the nascent food pantry grew “organically,” leading to building the first garden-in-a-box in the courtyard that features radishes, Swiss chard and dill.
Jordan Ladd, a senior at MAP, wrote and received an $800 grant from Youth Service America to purchase seeds and other items necessary to begin a garden.
While Jordan works the rain barrel and the compost, Emily Roses, another senior, has recently learned how to work on a winter garden from instruction provided by Susan Salem and others at The Organic Garden at St, Francis in North Bellmore.
“I wanted to contribute in some way to help those families who may need help,” Emily said. Not knowing anything about gardening, she says after going to the Garden at St. Francis for instruction she is confident she can work the soil.
In the courtyard there is also a hut for gardening implements that houses seedlings in specific containers for spring planting. Outside the hut sits a composter for unconsumed foods from the cafeteria.
During a wrapping session in the MAP’s cafeteria, in which students from the high schools and middle schools wrapped boxes of mixes for over 100 families to be provided, Tiffany Rzempoluch, social studies teacher at MAP and co-founder, said the community cupboard now serves 30 families in the community twice a month. Under the school initiative of “One Voice, One Message,” all schools would bring their family collections to the community cupboard.
While packing, she said a mother came into the cafeteria and requested a bag of food, explaining she needed it for her family.
“We will give not only these boxes of mixes, but will also provide larger red bags with cans of goods and a $25 gift certificate, provided by an anonymous donor,” said Karin MacMahon.
The students , co-founders, teachers and administrators all involved in the cupboard maintain a strong inner sense that the school community cupboard is an idea whose time has finally come to fruition.
Our purpose here on earth … is to help one another – The Dalai Lama