A big donation boosts East High’s pantry; for many districts, food help has become ‘something that our schools can’t do without’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High students check out some of the snacks at the opening of the new food pantry, the Leopard Stash, at East High, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.

The East High School food pantry is committed to feeding the hungry — which includes the majority of its students.

“People are surprised that a lot of East High students don’t have the things that they need to basically just survive from day to day,” said Mya Johnson, an East student body officer.

“They think that just because we’re on the east side [of Salt Lake City], we have a higher income,” said Brooklyn Franco, the student senate president. “But that’s definitely not the case.”

Principal Greg Maughan said about 60 percent of the student body is enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program, and he estimates that number would be as high as 70 percent if everyone eligible signed up. Almost two-thirds of the student body lives at or below the poverty line; nearly 400 of the 2,000 students are refugees; and 85 to 95 students are homeless.

The school’s pantry — dubbed “Leopard Stash” — was launched in 2016 and has been stocked by donations from the community. Those will continue, but, on Tuesday, the school celebrated the announcement of a $70,000 donation from Smith’s Food and Drug, backed by a commitment to keep the pantry stocked for three years.

“It'll help us not only to remove some of that pressure on the community, but also help us be able to reach more students,” Maughan said.

“We can make sure they have everything in stock,” said Aubriana Martindale, a spokeswoman for Smith’s. “But not only that, it provides more of a nutritious, well-rounded plate.”

The Salt Lake City School District has food pantries at its two other high schools — West and Highland — as well at its alternative Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. It has eight total on-site pantries, as well as 19 where a mobile food program stops to bring ready-to-go bags of food to kids.

“The last thing a student needs to be worrying about is where they’re going to eat that day,” said Yándary Chatwin, the district’s spokeswoman. “Having these resources at the high schools is one less thing they need to worry about.”

Highland High’s pantry program started in October 2017 to help students and families get food before the holidays, and Principal Chris Jenson said it has remained open since then because of the need. It runs mainly on community donations but also partners with Fresh Market for fruits and vegetables.

“Just about every high school has families who could use some help,” Jenson said.

Other school districts across the Wasatch Front, where much of the state’s poverty is centralized, have also started providing food for their students in need. Granite District has 17 pantries and 33 schools where a mobile food program stops. Canyons District has six pantries and four schools on a mobile program route. Jordan District has pantries at all 57 of its schools, with the final one coming on line last year.

“They’ve become something that our schools can’t do without,” said Jordan spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf.

Jordan’s pantries include food, toiletries and clothing. The students who take items home are given a backpack to fill, so it’s not obvious to others that they’re receiving assistance. “They don’t have to be seen as someone who’s homeless or in need,” Riesgraf added.

At Granite, students can take home food on Friday afternoons to cover their families' needs for the weekend. Roughly 65 percent of those enrolled in the district have family incomes at or below the poverty level, which is one of the highest percentages in the state.

East High’s pantry program is augmented by a boutique, where students can choose from donated clothing, and an area where students in need can take showers and do laundry. When the pantry opened, outreach included normalizing using it and removing the stigma.

“That was the hardest thing at first. We had to make it very user-friendly and very open,” said former PTA president Patti Christensen, who — along with co-president Jane Barker — got the program off the ground three years ago. And it “really took off” when she went to the student senate for help.

“There’s some people that were ashamed,” said Kim Nguyen, a member of the student senate, “but if they know their friends come and get help from the pantry, they will come, too. Sometimes I come down and grab something I need.”

And the Leopard Stash has made the student body “much closer,” Franco said. “I think it’s bringing us all together. There’s a lot more to do, but I think this is a great step in the right direction.”

Pantry food is available to students who may have forgotten to bring their lunch, and to those needing after-school snacks because their lunch is scheduled at 10:50 a.m. and they’re on campus for hours after dismissal for sports, activities or tutoring.

“We’re open for all 2,000 kids,” said Kris Barta, East’s family involvement coordinator. “They’re welcome to come in, grab a milk, get a bagel. It doesn’t matter where they’re from or if they have a waiver. Everybody’s welcome.”