Elementary School Pantry To Remain Open Through Summer

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Hunger , COVID-19

Impact Fund To Contribute As Demand Grows Threefold

CHATHAM – In the past three months, the number of people served by the small food pantry at Chatham Elementary School has tripled. Given the demand, the pantry, which usually closes when school ends, will continue providing groceries to local residents through the summer.

“We obviously have a desperate need that is not going away,” said Principal Robin Millen.

In March, after the Boston Food Bank informed Millen that it could no longer provide food due to increasing demands at larger food banks, David Oppenheim, owner of the Wayside Inn, and his wife Gail volunteered to provide the resources necessary to stock the pantry through the inn's food suppliers. The assistance amounted to about $10,000 a month and kept the pantry operating as the shutdown continued and demand grew.

“I'm thrilled with his support,” Millen said. “We couldn't have done it without him.”

To keep the pantry open in July and August, the Chatham Coronavirus Impact Fund will take over the funding. After consulting with Oppenheim, the fund's advisory board agreed to commit to $10,000 each month, founder Stephen Daniel said Monday.

He also announced that beginning this week, local residents who previously received help from the fund can apply for a second round of assistance. The minimum amount of assistance for both families and individuals is also being increased.

“We're seeing the need out there,” he said of the decision to raise the assistance cap, which go from $400 to $600 for individuals and from $800 to $1,500 for families.

“What we found is that the primary demand seems to be around housing security. Those numbers don't solve that problem.” Daniel said.

Realizing that many local residents were losing their jobs because of the pandemic, Daniel and his wife, Mary Beth, began the fund in April with a goal of raising $300,000 to help cover people's housing, utilities, healthcare and other costs. Applicants are vetted through the Lower Cape Outreach Council and Monomoy Community Services, and assistance is paid directly to vendors rather that to the applicants.

As of June 8, 65 applicants have been approved, representing 94 adults, 103 children and 17 seniors. A total of $49,466 has been disbursed.

Initially, there was no expectation as to how much money would be raised, Daniel said. Its success allows it to not only support the school's pantry, but to increase assistance amounts and allow those who have already received funds to request additional assistance, to cover ongoing needs as long as necessary, he said.

“We want to let everybody know even if you've taken a bite of the apple, you can come back again” if a need still exists, he said.

At first the CCIF was not going to cover emergency food costs, reasoning that there are other agencies, like the Family Pantry of Cape Cod, available for that purpose. But the growth in demand at the elementary school pantry convinced the advisory board to make the substantial commitment.

In May, the school pantry served 101 household representing 470 people, including 240 children. In February, before the pandemic hit and schools were shut down, the pantry served 32 families, helping 148 people including 75 children. That figure itself was twice the number served when the pantry for was first formed in 2018 as a collaborative partnership with the Lower Cape Outreach Council and the Boston Food Banks, using a small unoccupied classroom to store food, according to Millen.

The initial goal of the pantry, she said, was to “increase student achievement and academic growth by offsetting the barriers hunger and food insecurity create for students attempting to access learning within the classroom.” It also hewed to the school's improvement plan by helping to serve as a way to communicate with parents and other caregivers to “create and maintain opportunities for engagement, education and discourse,” she said.

School officials did not realize the depth of need, but soon realized that the pantry was a good way to connect with families and caregivers who might not otherwise attend school-sponsored events like curriculum nights or open houses.

“It's been a huge benefit,” Millen said, adding that Monomoy Community Services and the Chatham Children's Fund have provided scheduling and other logistics support in the past three months.

In July and August, the pantry will provide food to families every two weeks. Continuation of the program through the summer wouldn't be possible without the support of the community groups, Millen said.

“The data proves that this pantry is an extremely important service at this time,” she said.