CHATHAM – Students returning to Chatham Elementary School this week might not have noticed anything different about the cafeteria, but for some students, a little-used but well-stocked closet will help ensure that they don't go hungry evenings and weekends.
The closet will be filled with non-perishable, nutritious food as well as other essentials, which will be given out to students identified by school officials.
“We can literally fill their backpacks and send them home,” said Principal Robin Millen.
While not technically a food bank, the food assistance program is serving the same purpose but at a micro-scale. The school is partnering with the Local Cape Outreach Council (LCOC) to provide the food free of charge, which Millen said will hopefully carry students through weekdays, weekends and other out-of-school times when they don't have access to school-based nutrition programs.
“Our focus is always about making sure our kids are ready to learn,” she said. The program will target not just Chatham Elementary students but their siblings and families as well, she added.
The program came into shape after the school failed to qualify earlier this year for the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which would have provided all students with free breakfast and lunch. To qualify, at least 40 percent of students in a school must receive free or reduced-cost meals. Monomoy Regional School District Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said while it initially looked as if Chatham Elementary would qualify, the final numbers were just shy of the threshold.
“We were just on the cusp of it,” he said.
Over the summer Millen and Guidance Counselor Jill Malinowski met with LCOC Chief Operating Officer Gennie Moran and discussed helping out students whose families school officials had identified as being in need. LCOC provides food through the Greater Boston Food Bank – staples like pasta, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese – and will also be purchasing school supplies and other items such as shampoo and toiletries. Moran said fresh fruit and vegetables will be available twice a month. Millen said space was found in a cafeteria closet to house the supplies and staff will pack kids' backpacks with the items or contact families to find out what they need under Malinowski's organization.
“We know our families,” said Millen, adding that the food will be provided to kids discreetly. With just under 40 percent of the school's approximately 260 students receiving free or reduced-cost meals, it's clear that many families struggle on a year-round basis. While they might not necessarily fall below the poverty line, jobs may take parents away from activities with their kids that are part of the learning experience outside of school, Millen said. There may be no extra money for books or going to museums. Having access to food through the program could free up resources for those activities, she said.
The school has other resources that help families in need. Cape Kids Meals provides weekend backpacks for students; the program requires a $150 per child sponsorship, Millen said, and the Barnstable chapter can only provide for four Chatham students. St. Martin's Masonic Lodge also provides totes of food items once a month, she added.
Devising ways to close achievement gaps, such as by making sure students have enough to eat at school and at home, is an element of the Chatham Elementary School's School Improvement Plan, Millen said.
“We're trying to find resources to bring our community into us and for us to go into the community,” she said. Families were notified of the program in a newsletter sent to parents last week.
Right now the LCOC program is only available at Chatham Elementary School now, but Carpenter said if it is successful it could possibly be expanded to other schools in the Monomoy district.
“Anyway we can use our schools to support the greater community, let's make it happen,” he said.
This is the LCOC's first foray into schools, Moran said.
“We're really excited about it,” she said. “Hopefully we'll be able to bring this to other schools.”
To contact Chatham Elementary School about the food assistance program, call 508-945-5135, extension 214.