Lowell High School Mill Market
From student project grows Lowell High food pantry
LOWELL — Hunger wasn’t an abstract concept for Jessica Lander’s Generation Citizen class last year.
The group of more than 20 students had all come to Lowell as immigrants, some of them leaving behind refugee camps and places of poverty where food was never a certainty. And in the hallways of their new high school, through conversations with their friends and their own periods of under-nourishment, they found the problem too widespread for their liking.
“We knew some of theses kids who were hungry and our passion moved us to help them,” said senior Rebecca Bitegetsimana.
Following the model of Generation Citizen, a hands-on civics curriculum, she and her classmates researched the problem of hunger in schools, identified a solution, and gathered together all the necessary stakeholders to make it happen.
On a recent Friday, they celebrated the opening of Lowell High School’s first food pantry.
“We found out that one in six students are hungry and this affects them in school by getting bad grades and being absent a lot,” senior Merifer Adames said.
Nearly 12 percent of minors in Middlesex County — about 38,000 kids — are estimated to be food insecure, according to a 2016 report by Feeding America, a national non-profit foodbank network
Lowell Public Schools have served free lunch and breakfast to all students since 2015, thanks to a federal grant, but that assistance stops at the school doors.
“Some people on the weekend, at the end of the month, don’t have enough money for food,” senior Phatphomviracboth Soeur said.
That’s where the new food pantry, a collaboration with the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, comes in.
Students who would benefit from a supply of non-perishable food to bring home can stop by the discreet office in B House and put together a package of groceries. The foodbank will supply most of the donations while Lowell High School students will stock the pantry, track which items are the most popular, and look for ways to expand the assistance.
“We’re thrilled, we’re just thrilled to be a part of it,” said Debbie Callery, assistant executive director at the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. “We did nothing. We just showed up and (the students) already had it all worked out.
Lander said her class worked outside of school hours, set up meetings on their own initiative with other schools that have food pantries, and put together a 23-page, researched project proposal.
They presented their plan locally and at the Statehouse last spring, alongside dozens of other Generation Citizen teams from around the state.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the students,” said Deidre Haley, dean of B House. “So many times we do a project, we write a paper, we take a test then they sit on a shelf somewhere and never really come alive.”
The food pantry is very much a living project, though. It has been open for several days and half-a-dozen students have taken advantage of it, Lander said. She expects that number to swell.
Future classes will continue the research and look for ways to improve the offerings, such as purchasing a refrigerator so that students have access to fresh produce.
The complete involvement of students in the process also has another benefit: it helps reduce the stigma of not having enough food to eat.
“I think that will be really powerful: that this is a project by students, for students,” Lander said.
Follow Todd Feathers on Twitter @ToddFeathers.º
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