Feeding the Spirit: RLHS Harvest Hope pantry up and running

Photos by Eleanor Guerrero Nicole Currier volunteers at Harvest Host food pantry now up and running at Red Lodge High School.

“When I was young, I knew some kids that didn’t have food. It’s not easy not having food,” reflected Red Lodge High School (RLHS) student, Nicole Currier. Currier had friends that came over and her family just fed them. But she saw signs of other students at school in Red Lodge quietly suffering while experiencing hunger. “They wouldn’t get lunch. They were super skinny.” Now, she is proud to be doing something about it. She works at the new RLHS food pantry for students called “Harvest Hope.”

Hunger is a national problem and a local problem. Almost 50 million Americans including 13 million children are hungry every day in America. Currier is taking steps to solve the problem by doing her part and said it feels great. “It’s in its fourth week,” said teacher Cindy Luoma who oversees the project. “It is student run,” she assured. “Students stack the donations, make the bags and are even on the board.” Soon, they hope to hold student fundraisers. There are already 19 students and their families participating. The student participants practice leadership too, by stepping up to get the bags to help their families. A sense of community engagement is fostered for all the students.

The National Institute of Health studies show that students behave and learn better if they are well fed. By volunteering at the pantry, RLHS students are learning about perhaps less flashy but extremely important aspects of leadership by helping their fellow students succeed. Right now Luoma said, “We have 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches and a supper in each bag.” A student just signs up and picks up a bag on his or her way out every Friday. There are no names, just numbers assigned so it’s confidential. Sample breakfasts might be a cereal and some oatmeal. Lunch might be canned chili, soup with ramen or veggies and chips. There is always a dessert like fruit, cakes and pudding.

The pantry is located off the main hallway behind the main reception desk.” Sometimes, kids forget to pick up their bags,” said Luoma. But they are trying to make it more obvious and more enticing. “We have a refrigerator and freezer so we can pack fresh fruit and fresh vegetables as well as canned. We include recipes, too.”

The pantry was funded by a $1000 grant from Bridger Schools’ Cole’s Pantry in February in cooperation with the Baretooth Cupboards and the Food Partnership Committee. The goal is to help feed hungry kids when food is not consistently available at home. It is an extension to existing programs in the community, including Baretooth Cupboards and the “It’s In The Bag” program at the elementary and middle school. The school food pantry is available to all high school students and their families. Luoma said, “We are initially starting with a weekend program, where students can stop by and pick up weekend meals on Friday. A letter is mailed home to every family enrolled in at Red Lodge High School.” Teachers can also request food for students.

There is a wall of shelves filled and boxes stacked with donations from local churches and individuals. They accept fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, packs of individual sized servings, properly processed game, and frozen meats such as burgers. “We have a different menu each week,” said Luoma. “For example, this week we have canned chicken, soup and a recipe to make it with the rice we distribute.”

One wish list item would be a deep freezer so they could accept more fresh vegetables, breads and meats. Another is to have the donations received on a steady basis. A list of regularly sought items is in the RLHS February newsletter.

Leadership is often not about standing up in front, but in quietly providing support and being an example where it is needed. It is only natural that RLHS leadership groups are stepping up to help as well as individual students. “Future Farmers of America students are here volunteering every week,” said Luoma. “They’ve done a ton of stuff!” The future leaders group Family Career and Community Leaders of American (FCCLA) with teacher Mrs. Zimmerman, is also getting on board with some student reps. “Student run, student supported,” said Luoma with a smile.

She said the response has been “very positive.” She is working on related projects for volunteer students to do to get even more engaged. Luoma looks forward to spreading the word throughout the student community so that no one feels left out or hungry in Red Lodge schools. For more information contact: cindy_luoma@redlodge.k12.mt.us.