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Food pantry in La Center High School celebrates first year

By , Columbian Education Reporter
4 Photos
Sophia Reyes, a senior at La Center High School, organizes food in the school's food pantry on Feb. 16. With a growing population of students who are going hungry, the local nonprofit, Lewis River Mobile Food Bank, worked with the school to start the food pantry.
Sophia Reyes, a senior at La Center High School, organizes food in the school's food pantry on Feb. 16. With a growing population of students who are going hungry, the local nonprofit, Lewis River Mobile Food Bank, worked with the school to start the food pantry. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

LA CENTER — As the recession took hold in this small, close-knit community in north Clark County, staff members at La Center High School noticed students standing in the lunch line but unable to pay for lunch. Their families don’t qualify for free- or reduced-lunch programs, so these students were falling through the cracks.

“Nobody should go hungry,” said Candice Howell, a community volunteer who organizes the Lewis River Mobile Food Bank. When she heard about the problem, she called the school and began working with Aften Pankiewicz-Waldram, who worked at the high school last year but now is the district’s Family & Community Resource Center coordinator.

Last school year, Howell and Pankiewicz-Waldram worked to transform a textbook storage closet into the school’s own food pantry, the Wildcat Care Closet. The pantry just celebrated its first year in filling the bellies of hungry high school students.

Howell wrote a grant to the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, which manages the La Center Casinos Charitable Fund, which is funded by gifts from La Center casino owners. They received seed money to start the pantry. Jim Nieman, the school’s industrial arts teacher, helped his students build pantry shelves. Every month, Howell brings food to restock the pantry.

“Candice has been a godsend,” said Principal Carol Patton.

Howell talked to the school’s Leo Club students about volunteering in the food pantry. The Leo Club is an official school organized activity that’s also associated with the service organization Lions International.

“I love the fact that the Leos students organize, restock, do the inventory. They’ve made it their project,” said Patton. “It’s students helping students.”

Senior Sophia Reyes, president of the Leo Club, was restocking the pantry shelves on a recent Tuesday morning. Reyes said she helps because, “It’s something so close to home. It affected so many people I know. I think a lot of students are good at disguising it (hunger). I didn’t recognize it at first until I learned about the need.”

Hidden hunger

With only 561 students, La Center High School is the smallest comprehensive high school in all of Clark County. La Center is not a high-poverty area. Many families live on acreage, but are cash poor — that is, they have property but few or no liquid assets, such as money in the bank. The average sale price for a home in La Center in 2015 was $306,300. That’s $8,000 higher than the average Clark County sale price. In some cases, parents have lost their jobs and the family’s income is squeezed.

Although 20.9 percent of the high school students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, that is lower than neighboring Ridgefield High School (25.5 percent) and Battle Ground High School (32.1 percent).

“Twenty percent. That’s still one in five kids,” said Pankiewicz-Waldram, resource center coordinator.

Hunger contributes to students’ inability to pay attention in class, learning retention and in behavior problems, she said.

Nicole Johnson, the school’s career/college specialist, pays attention to students’ behavior. When she notices a student who seems tired, she pulls the student aside and quietly asks, “Did you have breakfast today? I can tell you’re sluggish.”

Many times, the student didn’t eat breakfast. Then they walk together to the school’s food pantry and the student chooses a protein bar, fruit or nuts. Johnson also makes sure the student takes a bag of food home for that night’s dinner.

“We try to get them to access a meal,” Johnson said. “I’ll ask them ‘What do you need for later?’ ”

Sometimes students approach Johnson before school, after school and during passing time between classes to let her know they are hungry. More than 10 staff members are trained to help students access food in the pantry.

A church helps

Other community help came from La Center Evangelical Free Church. Pastor Michael Kirkman said a church member who works at the high school alerted the congregation last year about the hungry high school students who were short of lunch money. Sometimes a student’s lunch account is short by only a little or sometimes by a lot. Either way, a student doesn’t eat if there’s not enough money in their lunch account.

“We set up an account to help those students who don’t have the resources,” Kirkman said. “It allows students to eat lunch, which is important.”

So far, the church has donated about $300 to the account. This fund fills that gap. Many of the students pay the money back so that another student can be helped.

Students who need food for the weekend can stop by the food pantry and pick up a bag of food on Fridays. In each bag students take home, Johnson inserts a flier about the Lewis River Mobile Food Bank. She wants students and their families to know that if they run short of food, they can still feed their families by picking up food at one of the mobile food bank sites on Sunday afternoons.

The care closet also offers donated school supplies and hygiene items including soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, laundry soap and other necessary items that can’t be purchased with food stamps. There are two donation barrels for the pantry just past the school’s front door

In its year of the pantry’s operation, has there been a measurable difference? Are fewer students distracted because they’re hungry? That’s hard to pinpoint.

“If the Wildcat Care Closet changes the life of one student and family, it’s important to have it,” said Patton.

Food pantry at La Center High School

To donate to the Wildcat Care Closet, call La Center High School: 360-263-1700.

Lewis River Mobile Food Bank

• What: Provides food for the food pantry at La Center High School and to north county community.

• When: Distributes food to individuals and families in need from 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays in north Clark County.

• Where: First and second Sundays: 38615 N.E. 41st Ave., La Center. Third Sunday: Yacolt Evangelical Free Church, 509 W. Cushman, Yacolt. Fourth Sunday: La Center Evangelical Free Church, 111 E. Fifth St., La Center.

• Learn more:
Columbian Education Reporter