by: Kate Santich|Orlando Sentinel
September 4, 2015
At Rosemont Elementary, fifth-grader Meagan Scott eyes a stack of groceries being passed out to students and beams.
“My mom will be so excited,” the 11-year-old says. “They’re really helping us.”
Like nearly all of the 900 students at Rosemont, north of Pine Hills, Meagan is eligible for the school’s “Love Pantry” — a weekly distribution of food and hygiene supplies for kids and their financially struggling families. Though the students get federally funded meals on school days, many go home to bare cupboards on weekends.
Rosemont Elementary School Love Pantry
Christian Service Center Executive Director Robert Stuart help former Magic players Bo Outlaw and Nick Anderson stock the love pantry at Rosemont Elementary School. The Orlando Magic and Outback Steakhouse are sponsoring the Love Pantry at Rosemont Elementary this year, and this is the official announcement. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)
The need, officials report, is huge. But so too is the response. In the past five years, the Love Pantry has grown from serving 13 Orange County elementary schools to 63 schools of all age levels in Orange and Seminole. Other school districts have similar programs.
Among the four districts surrounding Greater Orlando — Orange, Osceola, Lake and Seminole — more than 217,000 public-school students now qualify for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program, meaning their families live below or just above the federal poverty limit. The numbers range from 49 percent of the enrollment in Seminole County to 60 percent in Orange, 61 percent in Lake and 72 percent in Osceola.
All rates are higher than they were during the heart of the recession.
The national average is 48 percent.
“We’re bringing together the faith community, the sports world and the business community here to feed these kids,” says Robert Stuart, an Orlando city commissioner and executive director of the Christian Service Center for Central Florida, which runs the Love Pantry program. “It takes everybody working together to help, because even though we’ve started to recover from the recession, there’s a long way to go. And kids are still hungry.”
Last year alone, the Love Pantry helped 14,000 children and their families.
“We have so many kids come to school on Monday and say, ‘I haven’t eaten since you fed me on Friday,” says Seminole County School Board member Dede Schaffner, who has led that district’s effort to help feed students when they’re not on campus. “Whenever I tell people the numbers, they’re shocked.”
Rosemont Elementary Love Pantry
The fully stocked pantry at Rosemont Elementary School. The Orlando Magic and Outback Steakhouse are sponsoring the Love Pantry at Rosemont Elementary this year, and this is the official announcement. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)
In Seminole, one of the wealthiest counties in the state, more than 32,000 kids qualify for federally funded school meals. To receive free meals, total income for a family of four, including any public assistance, must be less than $31,500. For reduced-cost meals, the limit is $44,900.
“I think the problem is unemployment and underemployment,” Schaffner says. “People are still trying to get back on their feet. We know giving food is not a permanent solution, but the kids need to eat now.”
Schaffner started the district’s Red Bag Seminole, which distributes reusable red grocery bags through a large network of churches and businesses so individuals can fill them with nonperishable food items and donate. The food is then divvied up into plain backpacks that are sent home with kids in need.
Stuart is also recruiting churches and businesses for the Love Pantry sites. This week, the Orlando Magic, which already sponsored a pantry at Hungerford Elementary in Eatonville, began serving Rosemont Elementary as well — with the help of Outback Steakhouse. The corporations agree to cover the expense of the food and provide volunteers to help pick up the supplies and deliver them to the schools for the year.
“For us, it was a no-brainer,” says Latria Leak, assistant director of community relations for the Magic. “All we have to do is look at the impact on kids. Our goal is to be in 10 schools.”
At Rosemont, Principal Patty Harrelson says her teachers can easily identify kids with the greatest need.
“You can tell because when they come to school, they’re just starving,” she says. “They’re lethargic, they’re sleepy or they’ll ask for snacks or try to sneak food out of the cafeteria.”
Rosement Elementary Love Pantry
Magic player Victor Oladipo talks to Rosemont kids before giving out bags of food. The Orlando Magic and Outback Steakhouse are sponsoring the Love Pantry at Rosemont Elementary this year, and this is the official announcement. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)
The Love Pantry program, like its counterpart in other districts, is discreet. At week’s end, the selected students stop by the school’s pantry — maybe a storage cabinet in one of the classrooms — and load backpacks with such offerings as tuna, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, cereal and soups.
It’s much the same in Lake County, where the nonprofit Deliver the Difference, based in Tavares, and Buses n’ Backpacks, a Clermont church ministry, help supply students at 32 elementary schools through weekly food programs.
Lake high schools have on-site food pantries where kids can stop in for something on the spot or get food to take home. And many middle schools are adding pantries.
But Osceola County, where the need is highest, arguably has the most widespread effort to feed students.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Leslie Campbell, the district’s director of special programs. “Seven out of every 10 kids in our district live below the poverty line. The community has really stepped up in recent years to help them.”
Florida Hospital Celebration, for instance, sponsors two elementary schools with food-backpack programs. Osceola Connected — a collaboration of nonprofits, businesses and faith-based groups — works with the Green Bag Project to distribute weekly food backpacks at 20 of the district’s 28 elementary schools. Osceola County government, the city of Kissimmee, a Lowe’s in Poinciana and five churches in St. Cloud also pitch in with money, food or both.
“We’ve seen the number of our homeless students continue to rise too,” Campbell says. “And I think the only way that’s going to stop is for [higher-salaried] industries to come here. Of course, then you have to have a work force that’s skilled enough to fill those jobs. So it comes back to education.”
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