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Fuel for thought: Bruin Food Pantry helps plug nutrition gaps for high school students in need

FARGO - The spare young man has a direct gaze and a strong, firm handshake.Seated in a science lab at Fargo South High School, he talks about his family.Money is tight. There have been days he didn't eat at home, "because we didn't have any food ...

Fargo South High School students Bakarr Fullah, Emily Sherva and Maren Ewertz stock the shelves in the Bruin Food Pantry.David Samson / The Forum
Fargo South High School students Bakarr Fullah, Emily Sherva and Maren Ewertz stock the shelves in the Bruin Food Pantry.David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO - The spare young man has a direct gaze and a strong, firm handshake.

Seated in a science lab at Fargo South High School, he talks about his family.

Money is tight. There have been days he didn't eat at home, "because we didn't have any food to cook or things like that."

Fortunately, that's gotten better, thanks to the Bruin Food Pantry.

The connection was made earlier this fall, when he asked ninth-grade science teacher Brittany Olson for a granola bar.

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Then he asked for a few more.

After that, Olson, who helped start the food pantry two years ago, steered him there.

Now, there's a lot less stress in his life - and a lot more pasta.

"I like pasta. Pasta's good. There's a couple of snacks" and canned vegetables and fruit, he said.

"I just felt better. I'm awake," he said. "Last quarter my grades were falling. I'm finding I'm doing a lot better than before."

Bruin Food Pantry was started by Olson and special education teacher Ariel Dowling in December 2015.

Olson said she saw the abundance of food brought in by South students and staff for Fill the Dome and other contests and thought it was great.

But seeing hungry students in her classes got her thinking the Bruins could get more immediate results donating to their own den.

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She and Dowling started by storing items in Olson's classroom, cramming the cupboards with food and clothing.

They then sought grants, getting $1,500 from the Fargo Schools Development Foundation and $1,000 from Cass County Electric. They used that cash to buy a freezer and a refrigerator, and some fresh and frozen food, Olson said.

The pantry became a Great Plains Food Bank partner, getting food from that agency, too.

Meanwhile, Olson's department also cleared out a storage room for the pantry, giving it needed space and privacy for students, she said.

Pantry use rises

Use of the pantry was slow for the first few months-perhaps five or six students a month, Olson said.

But by fall 2016, staff, teachers, administrators and counselors all knew what was available and how to get access to items for students, or to walk students through.

"Now we have 30 to 40 kids a month checking in, and those 30 to 40 kids vary every month," Olson said.

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The pantry stocks perishable and nonperishable foods. Fruit snacks, granola, macaroni and cheese and other easy-to-make meals are popular.

There are school supplies, hygiene products (shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, toilet paper) and household cleaning and laundry supplies, too.

One wall is dedicated to a line of winter coats and cubes filled with hats, gloves, sweatshirts, sweat pants and dress clothes.

"A lot of (the students) are happier, especially the ninth-graders," Olson said. "When they come to high school, they look a little down. You can tell something is going on. And then all of a sudden we get them on the program and you just see their stress alleviate. And now they can focus on some other things. It's one less major thing for them to worry about."

Need is there

At South, about 41 percent of students are in the federal free and reduced meals program, Olson said. But she thinks the number would be greater-perhaps 55 percent or higher-if more families knew about the program or did the paperwork.

Pantry use varies. Some students need help just once, others once a month.

Another 25 to 30 students are part of a weekend backpack food distribution.

The backpacks are packed by student volunteers at the school. Each numbered backpack has a list to match the stock with the needs of each recipient. The student volunteers also make up holiday baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas for pantry users to get them through holiday breaks.

"We usually give out a turkey or a ham with some sides, so they can at least celebrate, too," Olson said.

Keeping it low-key

The pantry is easy, confidential and "very low key," Olson said.

"Students have no idea who's been in there," nor do they pry, she said.

The pantry's success has also drawn interest from other school districts, including Valley City, Minot and Mandan, looking to do something similar, she said.

The first student volunteers were ninth-graders in Olson's classes who saw the cupboards crammed with food and clothing.

"A lot of them just asked if they could help," Olson said.

Volunteers collect items, take inventory, make up backpacks and keep the room organized.

First-time volunteers Bakarr Fullah, 15, Emily Sherva, 15, and Maren Ewertz, 14, recently used their free time to put up boxes of canned food.

For Fullah, it was about helping "people that do not have food or can't afford food."

He said it made him feel good to know the program would help families.

"It's just nice to help out the community," Ewertz said.

Help at other schools

The other public secondary schools in Fargo also stock food and other items for students who could use a hand.

District spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said the school district's middle schools have a space called Liz's Closet with snack foods, canned foods and hygiene products.

At Davies High School, there is the Eagle Cupboard, a large cupboard stocked with food and hygiene items and school supplies.

At North High School, there is The Open Door, a large room on the upper level of the northside gym with clothing, food, hygiene and household items, even dog and cat food, said Assistant Principal Kathy Cieslak.

At Woodrow Wilson High School, the food program is Food in the Cupboards, with clothing in the Woodrow Boutique.

To donate

The Fargo Public Schools Development Foundation website ( www.fargoschoolsfoundation.org ) has a link to a Bruin Food Pantry page and a downloadable donation form.

Food and clothing donations can also be made at South by calling the main office at (701) 446-2000 to arrange a good drop-off time.

To make donations to food cupboards or pantries at Fargo's other secondary schools, Campbell suggests calling their main offices to make arrangements.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONFOOD
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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