A new food bank at Hope High School on the East Side of Providence will make it easier for hungry students and their families to access nutritious, high-quality foods. The food bank opened October 29 and is fully funded and supplied by the Whole Foods Market at 261 Waterman Street.
The program currently serves about 20 students, but this number is expected to grow as word of its availability spreads through Hope High School. The program is intended as an additional support system for Hope High School's 500 students. Of the 24,050 students enrolled in the Providence Public School District, over 86 percent of these students receive free or reduced-price lunches from Providence Public School District. Many of these students may also be served by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank (RICFB); one out of every three people served by the RICFB is under age 18. Foods that students receive through the Hope High food bank program are considered charitable supplements and do not affect any student's eligibility to partake in the National School Lunch or Breakfast programs.
The food bank at Hope High School came about following a discussion between several Hope High teachers and Chelsea Barton-Karnes, a marketing representative for the Waterman Street Whole Foods. "Students may be getting free lunch, but are they eating for the weekend? Or are they eating when they go home? Or are they able to eat breakfast before they come to school? That was the dilemma," she told the Independent.
To partake of the program, a student need only approach a guidance counselor. "It's very much on the down-low so as not to embarrass anyone," said Barton-Karnes. "[The counselors] say only 'I have a student in need, would you pack a bag for this student? I will get it to them.'"
The food is distributed discreetly to students in backpacks; the amount of food a student receives depends on his or her family's situation. "Some [students] have five siblings and some are a single 17-year-old mother who has a two-year-old at home, who is trying to raise her child, pay her rent, go to school and finish school," Barton-Karnes said. "This will be a huge assistance to all those wide ranges of families."
Barton-Karnes stressed that all food provided through the food bank is natural and organic: "We made it a point to [include] some really healthy protein alternatives like beans. We made sure we had canned vegetables, fruits, applesauce and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, breakfast bars and fiber cereals." The program is unique in that it provides natural and organic products to students and families who could not otherwise afford these higher-priced items.
The program is slated to continue indefinitely, funded fully by Whole Foods Market as part of Whole Foods' commitment to donating at least five percent of each year's profits to charity. Additionally, the Hope High School food bank will be open during winter and summer breaks, so students will have year-long access.
This is not the first time Whole Foods Market has played a role in hunger prevention in Rhode Island. Andrew Schiff, the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank (RICFB) told the Independent that "they're an extremely generous donor to RICFB." Two weeks ago, Whole Foods hosted "Five Percent Day," in which the store donated 5 percent of that day's profits to charity. The RICFB received a donation of $10,000 thanks to the event. According to Schiff, Whole Foods also donates food to the Kids Cafe program, an RICFB program that serves a hot evening meal to over 1350 children per week. In addition, the Whole Foods Market at North Main Street is expected to open a similar food bank at Esek Hopkins Middle School, located at 480 Charles Street in Providence.
Said Schiff, "In the last year, there has been an unbelievable increase in demand for food assistance across the state. At our largest food pantries, there is a 12 percent increase, compared to the same time last year." Schiff attributes the rise in needy families to the weak economy and high unemployment, and notes, "our food pantries are telling us they're seeing more new clients, people who have never need food assistance before."
The plummeting economy foreshadows a difficult year for low-income families in Providence, and private charity is only one response. On the government level, food stamps benefits and USDA food available to Rhode Island will increase, thanks to the Federal Farm Bill, which went into effect October 1. "That is huge," said Schiff. "It doesn't cost the state a penny and these are programs that can make a real difference in preventing hunger."
AUDREY VON MALUSKI B'09.5 misses tater tot Tuesdays.