Omayra Patterson walks through a parking lot at Wyandotte High School looking for volunteers.
By LAURA BAUER
The Kansas City Star
Schools been out for about 30 minutes, and a group of high school students already has formed an assembly line along cardboard boxes, stacks and crates of food. Waiting cars already snake around the block.
Can I get some more helpers down here, please? hollers Patterson, a migrant advocate for the Kansas City, Kan., School District. Shes trying to corral more teens for designated spots along the food line.
Its the last Tuesday of November, and seemingly the coldest day so far this season. A few adults and a dozen or so students, bundled in coats and hats and scarves and complaining about the cold, are here to do what they do every other Tuesday afternoon at Wyandotte High: Pass out food to families that need it.
Food that will help the families get by for the next two weeks when theres not enough money or food stamps to cover their needs. Food that will ensure that some students at Wyandotte and other Kansas City, Kan., high schools have enough at home to eat.
Teenagers are what this mobile food pantry is all about. And who a program in the Shawnee Mission School District was designed for, and one at a Topeka high school.
For years, the Harvesters food bank has focused its efforts on elementary school students, making sure they have enough food when theyre at home on weekends. At school, young children will speak up, say when theyre hungry and go to the nurse when they have a stomachache, unaware that its often hunger pains.
But as children grow, that willingness to speak up often fades. And by the time children reach their teens, theyre typically not inclined to share their feelings or whats going on at home. That means teens often go without, not getting all the food they need at home, or sitting alone at lunch when they cant afford a meal.
They feel the shame of hunger, said Angela Jeppesen, youth services manager at Harvesters. They feel badly for their family and the situation they are in. If a kid didnt have to ask their mom for lunch money, they feel they are contributing to the family.
They just dont want to advertise to everyone that they need food.
So Harvesters worked with school districts to pilot programs that would fill the gaps for high school students. The pilots, like the mobile food pantry in Kansas City, Kan., have now become full programs.
When cars pull out of the parking lot at Wyandotte High after some families have waited more than an hour they have a trunkload or back seat full of food. Potatoes, yogurt, cabbage, fresh fruit, rolls, even Gouda cheese.
At the end of the line, Siemera Hines, a sophomore, waves the vehicles out and they drive off. She likes knowing that the food is going to families who need it, to other teens.
With high school students, its like a shyness thing, a popular thing, says Siemera, 16. Its like you dont want people to know youre hungry.
She shakes her head, disagreeing with that philosophy.
The way I look at it is, speak up, get it, she says, gesturing down the assembly line of fresh food. Its for you.
Word got out
Susan Dunham hadnt been counselor at Washington High School long when the question hit her.
An educator for 25 years, shed taught in Kansas City and Grandview. Now in Kansas City, Kan., she continued to see hungry kids. Teenagers came to her office asking if she had anything to eat.
One day Dunham herself asked: Dont they have BackSnack for high schools?
Through its BackSnack program, Harvesters sends 17,000 packs of food each week to tide children over the weekend. The packs, which provide enough food for two breakfasts, two other meals and other snacks, are for elementary schoolchildren.
Dunham posed her question to Kerry Wrenick, who works for the Kansas City, Kan., districts McKinney-Vento Center, which helps students without permanent housing. The question sparked a conversation. What is available for hungry teens? How do we know that were reaching those who need help?
Harvesters got involved. And what the group of educators and advocates realized is that teens have different needs and different preferences than younger kids.
Where a backpack of food is perfect for elementary school students, a one-size solution doesnt fit all teens.
The goal was to meet the need of students in different population areas, said Jeppesen, of Harvesters. And find the most effective way to get the food to them.
In the Shawnee Mission district, the need is more of a day-to-day thing.
For some teens there, Jeppesen said, its, I have lunch money for Monday and Tuesday, dont get paid until Friday. What about Wednesday and Thursday?
Counselors and teachers, along with Harvesters, realized that what some students really needed was just a brown bag meal with protein on days when they didnt have money for lunch.
In Topeka, one high school was far from any food pantry, so Harvesters set up one inside the school.
And in Kansas City, Kan., it was families in need. Since the last school year, two high schools have hosted the pantries on alternate weeks, allowing families to get food twice a month. Harvesters funded the pantries with a grant and this year is supplying donated food.
We were slow getting started, Wrenick said. But once word got out
They went from about 50 families at Wyandotte High to roughly 200 at each pantry twice a month. For Washington High, the number of families served grew from about 30 to 130.
Weve been very careful to provide dignity and respect to these students in meeting their needs, Jeppesen said.
Students get a voucher from their counselor and give it to their family. The only requirement to go through the line is the family must have at least one student at one of the high schools in the district.
Dunham often works the pantry at Washington High, spending time talking with the families. Sometimes shell see some of the students, crouched in the back of their vehicle, hoping no one sees them.
Theyll whisper, Hi, Mrs. Dunham, she said. They dont want anybody to know theyre back there. Theyre embarrassed.
But she wants the kids, and their parents, to know that shes happy theyre there.
I applaud them for showing up, Dunham said of the parents. Theyre there trying to help their kids. Any parent who does that should be applauded.
Getting the help
Joanna Henton was among the first people to use the pantry at Washington High last year. Her husband passed away four years ago and times have been tough.
The fruit and vegetables and other food helped her family. So much so that she went to Dunham and said she wanted to volunteer on distribution days.
And shed bring other members of the Women of the Moose, a civic and fraternal organization to which she and her mother belong.
On a recent Tuesday, Henton was there with her son, Sean, a couple of his friends and several volunteers from the Women of the Moose.
Ive been through a lot, she said as she waited for another car to pull up. It feels good to help out.
Those who come for food tell Henton how thankful they are. She loves being able to help the parents at the mobile food pantry.
I tell them well be here all year, Henton says, smiling.
Yvonne Payne knows that. She said she gets in line 30 minutes before the distribution typically begins.
Her daughter is a sophomore at Washington, a standout athlete and student, and the food Payne gets helps fill in the spots when you dont have extra.
The potatoes alone, she said, are good for about 20 meals.
If it were up to the teens to come forward, they wouldnt, Payne said. But their moms and dads will.
As she put it: We all need a little help sometimes. Just a little.
To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to email@example.com.