Lee students join fight against hunger, stigma in their community

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LEE — Each week, Perry Flood of the Lee Kiwanis Club visits the local Big Y supermarket and other businesses to round up surplus food goods. He then drives them to Lee Elementary School where a team of sixth-grade students and teachers are there to greet him and unload the boxes. Some weeks, the bed of Flood's pickup truck is chock-full of boxes of breads, cereal and canned goods. Other weeks there are fewer parcels. But for this team, every single item counts.

Together they bring the boxes up to a former computer lab on the second floor, which has been turned into a makeshift food pantry: including a six-tier rack, a couple of freestanding storage pantries, and a refrigerator donated through the Kiwanis and Henry's Electric. There, under the guidance of sixth-grade geography and English language arts teacher Kelly DeVarennes, with support from paraprofessionals Sonya Daly and Nancy Hanson, Food Security Teams of sixth-graders spend their Friday afternoon recess period helping to sort items equally into boxes and backpacks, which they call meal kits. Sometimes they include a recipe to correspond with the ingredients they're given. On holidays and long breaks, the students try to fill the kits with extra items and snacks. Then, they get distributed, not to local shelters or churches, but to other kids at their own school.

Each meal kit has a tag with a number and a basic label identifying the number of kids and indicating any allergies, such as "kindergartner and toddler, no peanuts," or "1st grade, small family," or "large family, 1st grade, 5th grade and middle school." Sometimes, they're distributed directly to the kids to take home. In other cases, they'll get distributed indirectly, through a teacher, a bus driver, or someone else stopping by the family's house on their way home — a convenient alternative to trekking to a food pantry.

Various classrooms are also stocked with healthier snacks, like cups of cereal, applesauce and granola bars, so that no child gets left behind with an empty stomach.

"We're embedding this into what we do daily, trying to make sure that students see the issues of poverty or hunger destigmatized and helping out as something that's normalized," DeVarennes said.

The sixth-grade initiative began a couple of years ago, during DeVarennes' world geography class. The students were studying about the global issues of poverty, and subsequently got involved with supporting a school in Kitale, Kenya, with donated supplies.

That led to a class research project on food insecurity in the United States, and subsequently the rates in their own school district. At that time, nearly 60 percent of students were receiving federal subsidies for school meals.

That group of students, now eighth-graders, decided to start a snack pantry. Their teacher received a $500 grant from the Center for Educational Improvement to seed the initiative. The idea has since evolved into the meal kit program, and in January, DeVarennes and her colleagues will launch an out-of-school Food Security Club allowing more kids to get involved in helping out, from planning budgets to shopping for the school pantry.

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"We're doing what we can to be proactive," DeVarennes said.

Asked why people might feel ashamed about not having enough food or money or clothing, sixth-grade team member Reece Faggioni said, "They're afraid people will judge them."

"But I don't think if you don't have something you should be judged," said his classmate, Brooke Sargent.

"They need to know that there are people out there that want to help you," Omari Smith said.

The sixth-graders said that sometimes they know by talking to classmates who doesn't have enough. DeVarennes said sometimes students confide in her or other staff members, but other times people fly under the radar. While students don't always realize it, sometimes the students helping to put the meal kits together are the ones who will also take it home.

For several families, whether they're going through a job loss or family separation, the need is only temporary.

"I had one parent call the other day to say, 'my family is stable' and I loved that they felt comfortable doing that, that we're normalizing that," DeVarennes said.

The next step for the Food Security Teams is to solicit more help. Right now, Kiwanis member Perry Flood is working with the Lee High School carpentry classes to get more shelves built for the elementary school pantry. Students and the team of teachers are actively soliciting ongoing donations of food and grocery store gift cards to help keep those shelves stocked.

Asked whether she ever expected her class lesson to grow into such a project, DeVarennes smiled and said, "I always hoped it would. I'm always looking for something bigger to connect [a lesson] to. If it's not relevant to the kids' lives, it doesn't feel the same."


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