On a summer afternoon in July, people are bustling in and out of Room 372 at South Lakes High School. Members of the school’s parent-teacher-student association transformed the room into a food pantry last school year and decided to keep it open throughout the break to keep students in need from going hungry during the summer.
Shepherded by parents Roberta Gosling, Abbe Pascal, Andy Sigle and Amy Shaw, the South Lakes High School PTSA began collecting food in February and started distributing food to students in March — serving 25 to 50 students per week.
Since March, the pantry has served about 100 students and their families and more than 350 people have come through its doors. At two bags per guest, that is more than 700 bags of food and counting.
Gosling, Shaw and parent Ronni Levine were volunteering on the afternoon of Thursday, July 27, organizing donations and distributing food and toiletries.
“It’s a community thing,” Shaw said. “Everyone is excited to plug in and get involved.”
The pantry has received great support from the community:
Local dentists have donated toothbrushes and toothpaste
Harris Teeter and Trader Joe’s grocery stores have donated bags
Herndon-Reston FISH, Inc. donated 800 boxes of macaroni and cheese
The congregation of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Herndon and A Simple Gesture Reston regularly donate food through the “cool, green bag” program
The high school’s music and theater programs collect donations at performances and concerts
The high school’s teachers and staff donate items
SLHS alumni and employees of Copper River Information Technology in Chantilly regularly donate money
Girl Scouts from Troop 5185 in Reston and the Reston Swim Team Association’s Dolphins and Sharks teams collect donations
Vendors from the Herndon Farmers’ Market donate unsold produce
Catchin’ Toads, a Reston-based band comprising SLHS students and alumni, performed a benefit concert at Ned’s Irish Sports Pub in Herndon on July 16 and raised more than $1,000
“Every week, we put out a call for the things we need [in the school’s newsletter], and by the next week we’ve got plenty of it,” Gosling said.
Gosling and Shaw were nervous about running out of supplies during the summer because the students weren’t in school, but they always found “a ton of food” waiting for them to collect from the main office, which people dropped off during summer office hours.
“The community has just been amazing,” Gosling said. “Sometimes I cry when I come here.”
During the school year, students pick up shopping lists that are available in English, Spanish and Arabic. The students then drop off their list on Thursdays in a box.
“There’s an anonymous box and it’s by their student ID number, so they don’t have to put their name on it,” Shaw said.
VOLUNTEERS then come in on Thursday night and Friday morning to pack the bags for the students, which are picked up on Fridays at the end of the school day.
“They pick up their bag by student ID and they just kind of walk through and walk out the door,” Gosling said. “They get to walk right to the buses, so it’s pretty anonymous.”
“We just line everything up by student ID and we have volunteers that help kids pick ‘em up and they head right out to their bus,” Shaw added.
Gosling and Shaw describe Kimberly Retzer, the high school’s principal, as a “super cheerleader and champion” of the pantry.
“She helps send a text out every week to remind the kids to turn in their slips and she tweeted,” Gosling said. “She’s totally into it.”
On July 19, the southlakeshs Twitter handle tweeted: “SL PTSA food pantry open each Thurs 3-6 p.m. during the summer.”
Students participating in the high school’s Work Awareness Transition program collect food donations from the main office, check for expiration dates, inventory and stock the shelves of the pantry, according to Shaw.
Excitement for the pantry spread beyond the walls of the school.
“People just on their own had big birthday parties — like 50th birthday parties — and just asked people to bring donations for the pantry instead of presents,” Shaw said. “So, the whole front office was just full of food after these parties, which was just awesome.”
The PTSA parents who helped start the pantry hope it goes strong well after they leave.
“We’re doing what we can to make it institutional,” said Gosling, whose child just graduated from the school. She and some other parents will not be members of the PTSA this school year because their children will have moved on.
As Reston parents worked to solve a problem at their school, their students are not the only ones who suffer from food insecurity in the county.
A total of 50,668 students or approximately 27 percent of students who attended Fairfax County Public Schools during the 2016-2017 school year were eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, according to the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs.
Children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals based on household income and family size. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, according to the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Children who are part of households that receive SNAP benefits or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families are automatically eligible to receive free meals. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, which may not cost more than 40 cents.
The 2017 federal poverty levels, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are:
$12,060 for individuals
$16,240 for a family of 2
$20,420 for a family of 3
$24,600 for a family of 4
$28,780 for a family of 5
$32,960 for a family of 6
$37,140 for a family of 7
$41,320 for a family of 8
Federal poverty level amounts are higher in Alaska and Hawaii
To fill the void during the summer, the county participated in the Free Summer Meals for Kids Program, which provides free meals to children aged 5 to 18 years old from June 26 to Aug. 25, excluding July 3 and 4.
PARTICIPATING SITES were either open or closed. Open sites served free meals to all children and are located where 50 percent or more of the students receive free or reduced-price meals at school, according to the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. Closed sites served free meals to children who were eligible for the National School Lunch Program and are located in areas where less than 50 percent or more of the students receive free or reduced-price meals at school.
Open sites in Reston and Herndon were: Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center, Southgate Community Center and West Glade Apartments. The single closed site in Reston and Herndon was Cedar Ridge Community Center.
The Fairfax County Public Schools Office of Food and Nutrition Services also put on the Food for Every Child to Eat During Summer (FEEDS) BBQ program at various schools across the county during the summer. The USDA-funded program was free for all children 18 years old and younger and $2 for adults. Meals were served from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. from June 26 to Aug. 25, except July 3 and 4, at three locations in Reston and Herndon: Dogwood Elementary School, Hutchison Elementary School and Herndon High School.
A video about the program, “Food and Friendship with Summer FEEDS,” which was published on June 30, featuring FCPS Deputy Superintendent Steve Lockard, Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School Principal Clint Mitchell and Virginia’s First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, can be viewed on the Fairfax County Public Schools YouTube channel.