The families who show up on Friday afternoons seeking food at Kennewick schools and its district offices are out of options.
Other volunteer-run food banks in town are closed before noon, said Jack Anderson, the district’s director of federal programs. Even if they were still open, most families lack the money needed to drive a car or take a bus to pick up a box.
“They just need something for the weekend,” Anderson said. “These are folks living in their cars and motels.”
Helping students who struggle to get meals or even clean clothes isn’t new for many schools and school districts. Some have maintained small food pantries or other resources for years while also pointing families to charities or other aid agencies.
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But more are collecting canned goods or used clothing and handing them out, rather than just referring people to other charitable organizations and agencies.
“We want to help our community,” said Ethan Flatau, service and activities board officer with the Associated Students of Columbia Basin College.
School districts which receive federal dollars provide free and reduced-price lunches to low-income students. School counselors and other district staff work to connect families with food banks, health care services and other agencies to keep students healthy.
The state receives $950,000 a year to enforce the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, which helps homeless students in various ways, such as paying for transportation to their school even if they move outside its assigned area.
Richland’s Jefferson Elementary School, which has the most low-income students of any school in that district, uses donations to maintain a food pantry students can access on Fridays to get through the weekend.
Some Pasco schools keep some clean clothes and food on hand for students, with teachers and staff sometimes taking food to student families during home visits. The food and clothes are all donations from staff or others in the community and aren’t paid for by school dollars.
Now the Kennewick School District is starting its own food pantry, which also will provide basic hygiene products, for its neediest students and their families, Anderson said.
Kennewick High School’s annual food drive will be used to help stockpile the pantry but community donations are also sought.
The Kennewick School District has almost 200 homeless students, 22 percent more than it did at this time last year, Anderson said. Students and their families have sought more direct help in the past but not at the levels seen this fall.
“We’re in the business of helping kids and when kids are hungry you have to feed the families,” he said.
A few Richland schools have annual food drives to benefit their students, district officials said. But Lewis & Clark Elementary School is planning to have nonperishable food on hand year-round.
Rebekah Duty, counselor at Finley’s River View High School, started a clothing closet for students two years ago when she moved into a bigger room. She has not started a food pantry because of concerns of maintaining freshness and quality, but has begun soliciting help from community members when students come to her needing something to eat, she said.
“We are kind of the hub (for the community),” she said of Finley schools.
Student leaders at CBC started working on the Feed CBC food pantry at the end of September after it was recommended by an adviser, Flatau said. Students have donated in many ways, from bringing a nonperishable item to get a discount movie ticket, extra money to student clubs who bring in the most food and even professors offering extra credit for donations.
The pantry, which has about 600 items, will open to current CBC students today and operate before and after the Thanksgiving holiday, Flatau said. It will work on an honor system, but student leaders will monitor what is taken and how often.
School district and college officials aren’t seeking to replace food banks and other social services, they said. The increased need paired with the difficulty some families face in getting to those services makes these new food pantries critical.
“As a school district, (families) know there’s going to be someone here all the time,” Anderson said.
Spokane-based food distributor Second Harvest is reaching out to families this year by taking its mobile food bank to Tri-City schools. It was at Jefferson in late October and is scheduled to visit Kennewick and Pasco schools in the coming weeks.
Jean Tucker, the organization’s development manager, understands why schools are establishing their own food pantries as well, she said. She and other volunteers see a lot of families still struggling after the 2008 recession.
“It just speaks to the need out there,” Tucker said.
At CBC, the reason to open a pantry was to give students an opportunity to help other students who may not be able to get to other resources, Flatau said.
“Our goal is to have students not be embarrassed about needing food,” he said.
That sense of generosity has an extra element in Finley, Duty said. Many of the donations she receives are from past River View alumni — some who received aid while they were students themselves.
“For them, it’s paying it back,” she said. “They know River View really helped them when they were in need.”