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Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert helps open a food pantry at a Salt Lake City middle school

NBA player’s “Rudy’s Kids Foundation” teams up with Smith’s Food to help eliminate food insecurity in a community where 86% of students live below the poverty line.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert visits Northwest Middle School to see the new food pantry, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Rudy's Kids Foundation, Smith's Food and the Salt Lake Education Foundation combined efforts to open the food pantry. At rear is James Yapias of the Salt Lake Education Foundation.

As Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert towered over her, Northwest Middle School principal Andrea Seminario rattled off some statistics about the student body at her school.

There are 655 students enrolled, roughly 70% of them Latino, 20% Pacific Islander or Black, some 33% are English language learners … and about 86% of of the students at the school in the Westpointe area of Salt Lake City are living below the poverty line, including some 30 who are homeless.

“I can’t tell you how many times I walk the commons [area] here during lunch time and kids tell me, ‘Mrs. Seminario, get me a second lunch or a snack,’ because they’re still hungry,” she explained Thursday afternoon. “And it made me really sad that we didn’t have a food pantry.”

Didn’t. Past tense.

That’s why the 7-foot-1 Gobert was there, looming large both literally and figuratively.

The All-NBA center’s “Rudy’s Kids Foundation” teamed with Smith’s Food & Drug and the Salt Lake Education Foundation to open a food pantry/family center at Northwest.

According to a joint news release from Rudy’s Kids Foundation and the Salt Lake Education Foundation, approximately 1,300 to 1,500 NMS students and family members are living with food insecurities.

The pantry at the school (located at 1730 W. 1700 North) was officially opened Thursday, and is stocked with all sorts of food and grocery items, such as canned goods, baby formula and wipes, diapers, loaves of bread, gallons of milk, bins of potatoes, bags of flour, canisters of oats, boxes of cereal, fresh vegetables, paper towels, toilet paper, hygiene products.

Gobert said his rationale for trying to help out was simple.

“It always breaks my heart to see students, kids have to worry about their next meal,” he said. “I was one of those kids many years ago.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert visits Northwest Middle School to see the new food pantry and hand out backbacks, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Rudy's Kids Foundation, Smith's Food and the Salt Lake Education Foundation combined efforts to open the food pantry.

He recalled how “there were a few time my mom went to a place like this to grab a few meals,” while noting how relatively lucky he was to have people looking out for him and his family, and to pretty much always have food on the table.

The Northwest Middle School pantry and family center, made possible by contributed funds from Rudy’s Kids Foundation and Smith’s, will provide students and their families with access to emergency foods as well as other community resources.

According to the news release, “Research shows that students who fight hunger are unable to concentrate, have poor attendance and suffer anxiety. These students fall behind academically, drop out before graduation, exhibit behavior problems, and experience substance abuse issues. Children need nutrients so they can grow, develop and focus on learning instead of thinking about where their next meal will come from.”

The event drew myriad representatives from the Jazz organization, including general manager Justin Zanik and assistant coach Alex Jensen.

After several speeches from representatives of the school, district, education foundation, and Gobert himself, he was treated to a dance performance from many of the school’s Pacific Islander students, then he handed out some 250 bags containing backpacks and school supplies to students, pausing often to pose with elated youngsters — and their equally elated family members — for pictures.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert visits Northwest Middle School to see the new food pantry and hand out backbacks, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Rudy's Kids Foundation, Smith's Food and the Salt Lake Education Foundation combined efforts to open the food pantry.

Afterward, he left the main school building to take a look at the relocatable housing the pantry and family center, which will offer computers for use, and COVID-19 testing, among other benefits. He browsed the items available, stopped to talk to a few students and their parents, took a lot more pictures, and did a few media interviews.

He told The Salt Lake Tribune that this project had been in the works for about a year, a natural follow-up to his behind-the-scenes efforts then to provide meals to thousands of kids in the wake of growing food insecurity in Utah due to the COVID-10 pandemic.

“It’s going to benefit all those kids, all those students who don’t know if they’re going to have food on the table,” Gobert said. “It really touches me, and I’m glad that we’re able to help.”

He added that he was thrilled to finally have another in-person event, and to get to meet and talk to some of the people who would benefit from this program.

“It’s always more impactful when you’re there in person,” Gobert said. “During the pandemic, I was able to do a lot of stuff from a distance. But being able to meet those kids and see them perform, being able to hand them the bags myself … it’s way more meaningful for me. I’m just blessed to be able to have an impact.”

Seminario said there was no doubt he did exactly that.

“Access to a food pantry and a family center [here] is essential,” she said.

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