Sometimes it only takes a small spark to inspire an entire community to rally around the idea of solving hunger.
This was the case at Fenton High School in Bensenville, where during an all-staff meeting prior to the first day of school in August, teachers and administrators were presented with an alarming statistic: 52 percent of Fenton’s students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
This idea that more than half of Fenton’s 1,500 students might not have enough to eat served as something of a wake-up call.
“We look at our students as our children, and when we know they’re hungry at night, that’s concerning to us,” Fenton principal James Ongtengco said. “We know you can’t learn if you’re hungry.”
Before the all-staff meeting was over, Fenton’s English Department chair Mike Mitchell had texted a relative who works at Northern Illinois Food Bank to inquire about what could be done to support students and their families struggling with hunger.
Mike decided a good start would be to host the Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry, a travelling food pantry that provides food to high-need communities. He reached out to fellow faculty members asking for help to cover the $1,200 cost to sponsor a Mobile Pantry, and the response was overwhelming.
Within days enough money had been raised to host a Mobile Pantry in September. The issue of hunger quickly became front and center on the school’s website and social media platforms as students and teachers began wearing orange for Hunger Action Month. All the while, checks continued to arrive on Mike’s desk. By the end of 2015, more than $10,000 had had been raised by Fenton’s administrators, faculty and student council to host a series of Mobile Pantries.
“When I talk to faculty and students, they want to do something to make the change,” Mike said. “We went from aloofness to awareness to action in a hurry. Speaking for myself, I knew there was a problem with poverty and hunger at our school, but not necessarily the extent. Once I grasped that, my first thought was, ‘What can I do?’”
At the same time the Fenton High community was centering its attention on hunger, a similar movement was underway at Bensenville School District 2, which is one of two elementary school districts that feed into Fenton.
Faced with even starker statistics that show 74 percent of students in District 2 qualify for free and reduced lunch, Superintendent Jim Stelter also began exploring the idea of supporting students and families.
“When you look at what’s happening in DuPage County, you see things are changing fast,” Jim said. “Bensenville is kind of a blue-collar, working-class community. A lot of people work hourly jobs with the industry around O’Hare airport, and they’re trying to make ends meet. Living in the Chicagoland area is expensive, so it’s hard for families living at or near the poverty level.”
Jim also gravitated to the idea of sponsoring a Mobile Pantry for local families and found funding through his district’s administrators, the Bensenville Wood Dale Rotary Club and local business owners.
Soon a plan was mapped out where Fenton High and District 2 alternate sponsoring and hosting Mobile Pantries every month.
The school districts are also supporting their community’s food pantry and working with the food pantry’s leaders to best serve families in need.
“The Bensenville Wood Dale Food Pantry does some really great work, and they provide service to thousands of families every year,” Jim said. “For us, the question is how can we complement and supplement the food pantry through these Mobile Pantries to be even more impactful, because the need is continuing to grow.”