A Longer Table

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Mobile Pantry feeds East Side Elementary school students—and their families

When she was a child, Andriene Tate’s family used food banks and other services to make ends meet. Today, Andriene distributes food at East Side Elementary, to help ensure students and their families get enough healthy food to eat.

Andriene Tate knows what it’s like to wonder if the food in the pantry will last. When she was young, her family made sure she ate every day. But her parents also used a food bank and other social services to make ends meet.

As an adult, Andriene doesn’t need those types of supports. But that experience is the reason she volunteers one afternoon a month to feed others as part of the Mobile Pantry program at East Side Elementary school in Chattanooga.

“If you have more than you need, build a longer table,” she says. “It just makes sense to me, bringing other people in.”

Kids will tell you what they need
In Tennessee, 48.9 percent of public school children received free or reduced price lunch in 2015, based on their family’s income. At East Side, that number is more than 90 percent, which allows all students to receive free breakfast and lunch at school each day.

Those two meals a day help keep kids focused at school, says Kelsey Huynh, East Side Elementary exceptional education teacher. But it doesn’t cover all of their nutritional requirements.

“Our kids are very honest. They’ll tell you what they need,” she shares. “A lot of times they’d come to us and say they didn’t eat the night before, or that they didn’t eat enough. And they always looked forward to breakfast and lunch.”

That’s why, in 2015, East Side teachers reached out to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank to see if the school could join their existing school snack program. “But they had an even better option,” Kelsey says. “They asked if we’d like to pilot a school-based Mobile Pantry that could help feed our students and their families, too. So of course we said yes!”

Success and expansion
The Food Bank acquires and distributes healthy food across 20 Tennessee and Northwest Georgia counties using a variety of programs that best meet the needs of each service area.

Lack of transportation is one of many barriers to healthy nutrition, so the Food Bank created the Mobile Pantry program in 2014. It initially focused on bringing food to rural areas and some Georgia schools, says Lori Bell, agency relations & programs manager.

Left to right: Kelsey Huynh, East Side Elementary exceptional education teacher, Lori Bell, Chattanooga Area Food Bank agency relations & programs manager and Andriene Tate, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee employee and community volunteer, stand in front of the school and the truck that brings fresh, healthy food to East Side students and their families once a month.

Language can be another barrier to food relief. Because East Side has a predominantly Hispanic student population, it offered the Food Bank the opportunity to help meet that challenge.

The Mobile Pantry first visited East Side Elementary in August 2015. To participate, students’ families simply needed to let the school know they would be present on the day food was delivered. Next, trucks rolled in full of staples such as fresh or frozen chicken, milk, bread and vegetables. Teachers then worked to offload the food for the families to take home.

Since then, participating families have received more than 40 pounds of food from the program each month during the school year. In 2015, that equated to more than 91,000 meals. To-date, the 2016-2017 program has delivered enough food for East Side Elementary families to make nearly 80,000 meals.

For Kelsey, the real measure of success is that she and her fellow teachers can see a difference in the children. “We just don’t hear as many kids saying they’re worried about hunger anymore. Now they can focus on just being kids at school.”

What’s more, she says that trust and school involvement has increased because parents and teachers get face-time during the monthly events.

In 2017, the Food Bank expanded their Mobile Pantry to four more area schools, citing East Side’s positive community impacts.

Volunteers are critical to results
Kelsey and Lori note that the program would not be successful without the help of local volunteers like Andriene Tate and her more than 30 colleagues from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“BlueCross volunteers are the make-or-break ingredient for Mobile Pantry success,” Kelsey says. “They’re positive, helpful and always looking for ways to make the experience better for our families.”

“More than anything, though, they put in the work. Sometimes it’s stinky onions you have to bag! But I’ve never heard one complaint.”

For Andriene, the payoff is worth the time and effort she invests.

“I see families walking to the school with laundry totes and boxes to bring the food home,” she says. “It means a lot to know we’re helping so many. But most of all, it’s great to see the smiles on the kids’ faces.”

 

By Libby Clark
Photography by Sergio Plecas

Learn more at bettertennessee.com.

Promotional content provided by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, Independent Licensees of the BlueCross BlueShield Association. 

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