School food pantries shine light on overlooked population: needy teenagers

2011-11-30T00:00:00Z 2014-08-25T15:18:08Z School food pantries shine light on overlooked population: needy teenagersBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

For Sue Stahley, the food pantry now running at West High is a game changer.

"It's very hard to focus and stay alert and stay on top of your homework if you're hungry," she said.

The food pantry potentially can change that. It's part of a new program, aided by the Salvation Army, that aims to feed hungry and disadvantaged teenagers over the weekends and holidays.

Senior High's pantry was set up Tuesday afternoon. West High's pantry has been running for about three weeks. The goal is to get food pantries set up in all of SD2's high schools and middle schools.

There's a surprising need for it, Stahley said. She's a counselor at Tumbleweed -- a support center for teens -- who works out of West High.

West has 22 homeless students enrolled -- more than she's ever seen. On average she's handing out two to three grocery bags worth of food each week at West.

Senior High has 35 homeless students at the school. Once its pantry is running Stahley expects officials there will be handing out more food than West.

Sue Runkle is the homeless-education liaison for SD2 and has seen the need in Billings grow consistently each year for a decade.

"We have more kids out on their own now," she said.

Most of them are students who have been in the district for years, and because of the economy and other factors, have fallen on hard times in recent years. 

The percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals in SD2 -- the federal benchmark used to measure poverty  -- has grown from 33.1 percent in 2007 to 40.5 percent last year.

The district's population of homeless students also has grown. Last year, SD2 had 466 homeless students. The number is cumulative, a tally of each of the students who were at some point during the last school year identified as homeless.

There are 292 homeless students in the district. Runkle expects the number to keeping growing through the end of the school year.

Stahley said the homeless numbers illustrate the need that exists in the district, but pointed out that the food pantries are for any student in need.

The program grew out of the backpack meal program started in the district two years ago. Elementary school children who needed food over the weekend were sent home each Friday with two days worth of meals in their backpacks.

Since then, organizers have been looking for ways to serve the needs of teenagers.

"We started talking to the (high school) counselors, talking about the needs and what they see," said Kendall Coombs, a volunteer with AmeriCorps Vista, who helps coordinate the program.

The backpack meal program was too small in scope for middle and high school students, she said. Teenagers require a lot more food than elementary school kids.

Then last year Coombs was at a statewide meeting with other organizers of the backpack meal program and heard a presentation from Great Falls High School about a food pantry run out of the school.

Back in Billings, organizers met with the Salvation Army, which used to run a food pantry for teenagers out of its office. Officials at the Salvation Army liked the idea and agreed to work with the schools to put food pantries in each of the Billings high schools and then middle schools.

Ginny Mermel, chair of the Billings Public School Health Advisory Council and who started the backpack meals programs, has been involved with getting the food pantries up and running. 

"It's gone very well," she said. "So well that more food was quickly needed." 

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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