Boxes of mac and cheese, crackers, instant noodles and even apples gradually fill the shelves of a cupboard each week in the teachers lounge at Jefferson Elementary School.
And every Friday, the pantry is empty after 18 to 20 students from the predominantly low-income school and take food for themselves and their families.
"Usually, their backpacks are pretty heavy," said school counselor Susie Oram.
The school's neighbors, teachers and other organizations have rallied to make sure the students are able to fill their stomachs when the school's kitchen can't.
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But they said more help is needed to fill the pantry each week and to convince more of the school's needy students to take something for themselves.
The effort started last winter when one of the school's neighbors, who only wanted to be identified as C.J., began collecting food from others to distribute to students.
One fourth-grader told C.J. that her family's food stamp allowance doesn't cover the whole month, often leaving them short.
"It's hard for me to sit down at the dinner table knowing someone else doesn't have the same provision," she said.
About 70 percent of Jefferson's 400 students receive free or reduced-priced meals -- the highest of any school in the Richland School District -- because of their family's economic status.
The school used to offer a similar program through Second Harvest but money for it ran out two years ago.
Oram said the goal is to provide food the students can prepare themselves. That means a lot of nonperishables such as cereal, fruit leather and granola bars, and items that can be cooked in a microwave.
"It's not always the healthiest but it fills their tummies," she said.
The response was overwhelming, with food being left on organizers' doorsteps and one substitute teacher routinely bringing in cases of food she bought at Costco.
But with a new school year, organizers said they didn't want to keep going to neighbors each week for donations and are instead reaching out for other support. So far a Bible study group and a motorcycle club have signed up to help.
Organizers said that while the pantry's limited resources can't provide food for every needy Jefferson student, they are working to get more kids to visit the teachers lounge each Friday.
Oram said issues such as language barriers, lack of information and embarrassment prevent many students from accepting help. Steps are taken to protect student privacy.
"We just keep talking to them," she said.
As for that fourth-grader C.J. spoke with?
"She really wants a lot of juice, so when I come in I'm bringing a lot of juice," she said.
To help, call Oram at the school at 967-6250.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver