PETOSKEY, Mich. – A Michigan middle school is giving away food, clothes, and school supplies to needy students, who can fill two bags of food every Friday to help their families through the weekend.
The “Northmen Den” is a collaborative project between Petoskey Middle School, the local Manna Food Project – which distributes similar items to elementary school students – and volunteers with the Emanuel Episcopal Church’s Beyond Our Walls outreach program, the Petoskey News reports.
“I think it’s a big impact,” principal Jon Wilcox told the news site.
Wilcox contends that students coming in for the giveaways – estimated to cost about $22,000 and 1,600 volunteer hours per year – leave with “a sense of pride.”
“One of the stories that was told to us was that students that are down there feel a sense of pride because they’re bringing food home to their families and their siblings and their parents who are struggling,” he said. “They tend to feel a sense of pride in taking that food home. Right now, I think there are over 30 families that are being positively affected by this. That’s huge.”
Beyond Our Walls leader Kathy Peterson said elementary students became accustomed to receiving free food through the Manna Food Project’s program, and the Episcopal Church wanted to keep them in the fold when they move on to middle school.
Students were initially offered typical food pantry items like cans of soup and boxed meals, but some demanded “fresher, healthier food” so volunteers are now giving away fruits and vegetables, as well.
“These children are looking for good food. They’re smart,” Peterson said. “We are now bringing in cucumbers, fresh carrots, lettuce, green beans, potatoes and they take them. They love those big grapes and oranges and apples.”
Peterson said the program has grown in popularity since it started in November and now serves about 44 students per week.
“I would say the majority of the students are receiving the free lunch program,” she said. “It’s a supplemental program for them. These children are old enough to open up a can of soup and they’re old enough to babysit and they also are old enough to stay home alone.”
School counselor Colleen Pattullo told the Petoskey News that officials don’t screen students based on need, they simply open up the pantry every Friday. They also distribute free “snack bags” to students on Mondays.
“The kids who need it naturally seem to gravitate to it,” Pattullo said. “Most of the kids who have plenty of food at home are not asking to come to it. It’s all students I would probably think could use a little extra help.”
There’s also clothes, and school supplies, and personal hygiene items available for free, because school and church leaders feel sorry for students whose parents can’t afford everything.
“These children want to be like their peers and they’re now old enough to know that, economically, they’re not. It really breaks your heart,” Peterson said. “We now have pencils, we have notebooks with neat motorcars on them so they look like their peers. That has been added. Then we realized they really need shampoo and deodorant at that age … It really helps them with their self-image.”
“The clothing has also been a huge thing,” special education teacher Heather Giammalva told the Petoskey News. “They walked in one day and they had fleece jackets laid out. They said, ‘Would you be interested in this?’ Their eyes just lit up. It was a very, very positive thing.”
Pattullo admits that free- and reduced-priced lunches offered by the school through the National School Lunch Program ensures students won’t starve, but local officials believe the “Northmen Den” helps provide “a little bit of stress relief for the family.”
“There’s always something – clothing, tennis shoes, a car breaking down, a school trip – it helps the money spread,” she said, “which is a really nice thing for some of the families that are struggling.”