ST. PARIS – Graham Local Schools, in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank of Champaign, Clark, and Logan Counties, recently opened a choice food pantry in their elementary school in hopes of providing additional support and resources to students and their families.
Pre-pandemic, the Graham Local Schools Board of Education began a campaign to better serve its district’s families by offering multifaceted resources outside of academia, and GLS Director of Operations Don Burley suggested that the school look into adding a food pantry. The only other food pantry in far western Champaign County, the St. Paris Community Food Pantry run by the Federation of Churches, is open twice each week at the St. Paris municipal building at 135 West Main Street: Wednesdays from 5:30-7 p.m. and Saturdays from 8:30-10 a.m.
However, this pantry is often overwhelmed with need, and several years ago, Burley saw an opportunity to leverage school resources to meet that need.
“We know that people will take advantage of resources and opportunities if they are available and relevant, so we can make them available, and hopefully, this will be meeting the needs of a relevant conversation,” said Stacey Logwood, the Student, Family, and Community Support Coordinator for the Graham district.
Burley credits the Board of Education, particularly Superintendent Brad Silvus and Assistant Superintendent Emily Smith, with early and enthusiastic support for the project from its beginning stages.
In 2020, the district began conversing with Second Harvest Food Bank, a locally-owned and Springfield-based nonprofit that collects, stores, and distributes donations to partners across Champaign, Clark, and Logan counties. In September 2021, leaders met to determine final details, plan a site visit, and prepare for the pantry launch.
Logwood and Megan Christmann, GES Guidance Counselor, are heading up the effort with assistance from Burley and the school board.
A major focus of the market has been to involve students in all steps of the process.
The pantry will be staffed by Logwood, Christmann, and student volunteers. As Graham High School students are required to serve at least 60 hours of community service before graduation, the market will provide an opportunity for those students to directly better their community while addressing that requirement.
Though a food pantry housed in a public school may raise concerns about bullying or exclusion, Logwood is careful to address issues of privacy and confidentiality with all volunteers to ensure that the market is a safe, welcoming space for all those who enter.
Additionally, students in the GHS Leadership class, taught by Donna Jarzab, have worked closely with Logwood in developing the vision for the market. In the pantry’s planning stages, Logwood visited their class once a week to give updates and ask for input. Eager to provide assistance, the class led a donation drive, allowing individuals free entry into a football game in exchange for a number of hygiene items, as well as raising nearly $500 from a bake sale to benefit the pantry. Moreover, these students chose the pantry’s name, brainstorming videos and voting on the final choice; Logwood said they consciously selected something that would not shame food deficiency.
“We wanted it to be something that’s not stigmatizing, and something that is welcoming to the entire community; not just a name that would resonate with students or with older community members, but something that is positive,” Logwood said. “A market is a place that people go to shop, and we really wanted to highlight the fact that this was a choice market.”
A choice food pantry allows individuals to select their own items directly off the shelves, just as in a grocery store, rather than pick up a pre-boxed collection of items that they may or may not enjoy or be able to eat. According to Logwood, the ability to choose specific items has been by far the highest praise of the Falconland market in online reviews and in-person feedback.
“This allows people to take what they need,” Logwood said. “When we offer people a choice instead of a forced situation, we end up with better results.”
Additionally, Graham High School’s FFA recently donated a large quantity of fruit during their holiday sale, which allowed Ag students to provide fresh produce for the soft opening.
How it works
The Falconland Market is housed in GES’s second grade pod in a vacant classroom, a convenient location because of the pantry’s proximity both to the school’s west parking lot and the back loading dock. Second Harvest provided the school with a refrigerator and a freezer at no cost, so GLS only funded the installation of shelving units, a scale to weigh donations, two rolling carts, two grocery carts, and a stock of 12 grocery baskets. No software system is required; all information can be entered on any internet platform.
As for the food stock, Logwood and Christmann place an order with Second Harvest, and the food bank delivers that order to the school twice a month on Wednesdays.
In the future, Falconland Market will be able to accept donations, but Logwood asks community members to hold off on bringing in food items until the team can streamline the ordering process, nail down storage, and determine necessary quantities for each opening. However, Logwood says that the pantry could especially use toiletries and hygiene products, like the GHS Leadership class has already been collecting, as the school would love to offer these specialty items to families in conjunction with food goods.
Logwood and Christmann plan to hold drives for these sought-after hygiene items with students and staff, asking for items such as shampoo and conditioner, body wash, wipes, disposable razors, and more. However, Logwood emphasizes that volunteerism is what the market needs most.
“One of the greatest gifts of donations that we can have is the gift of time, so if people are able-bodied and willing to come in and help unload or stock or restock while we’re open, those are all opportunities that we would welcome,” she said.
Falconland Market held a soft opening on December 19, successfully serving eight families. During their second open date, all 8 families returned with guests, and the pantry served 109 individuals.
In addition to the market, GLS also sponsors a backpack program, originally started by GMS Guidance Counselor Melissa Erter in conjunction with local churches, that supports about 60 students between the middle school and elementary school. Each week, Logwood and Christmann put together bags filled with food and hygiene items and send them home over the weekend with food-deficient students whose guardians have completed the correct paperwork. The pantry will provide an additional method of easing the burden on struggling families.
“We recognize that the community sees the school as the hub of the community, and that we can only achieve success when we are partnering and when we’re meeting both the basic and educational needs of families,” Logwood said. “For many folks, being able to create an opportunity that meets basic needs for their kids, whether it’s through the backpack program or through the market shopping, helps to demonstrate that we care. That’s the big message. As a district, as an administration, as staff, we care.”
Going forward, the market will be open two Sundays per month from 1-3 p.m. in an effort to meet a specific county need, as no other area food distribution centers hold open hours on that day.
In February, the pantry will be open the 6th and the 20th. Visiting families can park in the west lot; Burley said that the school will soon be adding signage for clarity.
To keep up with the most current information and updates pertaining to open hours and potential weather-related cancellations, please refer to the Graham Local Schools Facebook page.
Reach Katie at [email protected]