It’s a busy Thursday afternoon at East Aurora High School, just before the bell rings to signal the end of the school day. A dozen volunteers have brought out mobile racks of food—frozen chicken breasts, potatoes, hummus, bread—into the wide hallway outside the cafeteria. It must be Student Food Day.
It may seem strange to put a food pantry among teenagers, but Mary, a 17-year-old junior at East Aurora, thinks it’s a great idea. “I do a lot of cooking at home for the three of us,” she says. “I like to make chicken, salad and noodles.”
Her friend and teammate on the cheer squad, Justice, chimes in. “But we like the snacks best.”
Both girls check in at the desk and swipe their school IDs. At East Aurora, 100% percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, and students on those programs are encouraged to visit the in-school pantry.
Started in January 2018, the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry expanded their outreach to a twice-monthly in-school pantry at East Aurora, and are looking to bring emergency food resources to other food-volatile schools in Aurora next year.
But for now, Justice and Mary fill two grocery bags of food to bring home to their families.
“Sometimes I bring my little sister to practice after school,” says Justice. “She goes through the bags to find a snack while she waits.”
The pantry offers students a limited selection of foods and personal products, and provides a recipe that utilizes the foods in their shopping bags. This week, the yellow card suggests easy combos for stuffed baked potatoes and one pot chicken and rice casserole. Students are encouraged to make the meals and post pictures on Twitter, tagging the program with @EastHighEats.
The program for East Aurora was student-driven, with many students participating in “think tanks” to discuss how best to make the food available. Bus service at East Aurora began in 2017, making it easier for students to get food home.
“I think having the food pantry here makes us feel like the school supports the people around here,” says Justice.
Many of the students work shifts at weekend food distributions as well. “I have worked at the pantry myself,” says Mary. “It’s nice to watch the kids get something special that they like.”
In the appearances-focused world of high school, it might seem like a risky thing to be seen at the food pantry, but both girls dismiss those concerns. “Lots of athletes like us use the food pantry,” says Justice. “They’re here to feed us; nothing wrong with that.”
Mary agrees. “It’s not embarrassing to get the extra food for your family,” she says. “It’s just food.” She elbows Justice with a smile, adding, “Besides, you can always go with a friend.”