On Friday afternoons, students at Clinton High School clamber into a small vacant classroom-turned-food pantry and begin to examine the shelves. Shelves are lined with canned goods and other nonperishable items, like peanut butter, and rice. The pantry also has snacks, and there is a commercial refrigerator for perishable items.
Students can take as little or as much as they’d like, but typically receive a drawstring bag to fill with items of their choosing. When there is increased stock of an item or items that students aren’t selecting, administrators will often pack large boxes of food and donate them to a student’s entire family.
The CHS food pantry– called the Dark Horse Pantry – is open to students, faculty, and staff who wish to visit. When students enter, they receive information about a balanced diet and meal and then select their favorite foods from the pantry to take home.
According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, 16.8% of Sampson County residents live in poverty. Realizing this need, the Second Harvest Food Bank and the North Carolina Community Action Association partnered with Clinton City Schools to start a food pantry — the first in a high school in the county. Together, they established a food pantry equipped to address food insecurity among students and employees, but also in the county.
In addition to the preliminary data, Clinton High School conducted a survey of its student body to assess their needs.
To further increase interest in the food pantry, CHS started hosting “tasting parties,” where the school creates recipes with ingredients from the food pantry and features food pantry foods for students to sample.
CHS principal Susan Westerbeek said one goal is to ensure that students don’t “gravitate to the same type of food and to venture out and try new things nutritional-wise.”
To help ensure that nutritional options are available and that students know how to prepare these options, the school partners with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension.
“One of my goals in partnering with the pantry is to utilize some of those funds that we have federally that we get through N.C. State University to help the kids gravitate towards the easier and the healthier choices and make that easy for them, and enticing as well,” Sydney Knowles, a Family and Consumer Sciences extension agent.
Knowles says the recipes she provides are designed to use low-cost foods that students would likely find in the Dark Horse Pantry. The recipes are simple and straightforward so that even those without cooking experience can use them.
“If you look at all of the eastern, southeastern counties, we are fairly high in our poverty rates. So having a food pantry that can help give kids access to healthy foods or just food in general that they might not be getting – I think that that is definitely crucial,” Knowles said.
Community support and partnerships
Dr. Linda Brunson, chairperson of the Clinton City Schools Board of Education, has taken a special interest in the pantry. She said it couldn’t be this successful without the support of the local community.
“All we need to do is put out a request to the community, and we’ll get what we need,” Brunson said. “Our community is so supportive of anything that we do.”
This has been evident through donations from many community organizations and businesses. Donations include food items from Tropicana Supermarket, food donations from Olive Grove Church, and monetary donations from other community members.
For the future, Knowles is making plans to return to CHS to conduct a cooking class. In addition to the recipes provided, Knowles will work with students on food preparation.
Combating food insecurity district-wide
In Clinton City Schools, eligible elementary students receive “Backpack Buddies” on Fridays to help supplement and provide meals over the weekends. These usually include canned goods and snacks. The program is sponsored by the First United Methodist Church of Clinton and currently serves 150 children.
When students get to high school, this service ends. Now, the Dark Horse Pantry will help fill that need.
Weekly, the pantry serves about 20 students. At its first tasting party earlier in March, around 300 students in the school sampled food pantry products.
“The children deserve it,” Bruson said. “There should be nobody hungry in our school district.”
A pilot program that ‘stands up to the bar’
According to the North Carolina Community Action Association, the Dark Horse Pantry is the only high school food pantry in the county.
Elle Evans Peterson, director of health policy and equity for the North Carolina Community Action Association, said the food pantry at Clinton High School was the start of a series of pilot programs to implement food pantries in high schools across the Cape Fear region.
The Dark Horse Pantry has set a high standard for schools that follow, Peterson said.
“It really has to do with the dedication, and the understanding and the willingness to put in the time and effort,” Peterson said. “It’s not just time and effort once — it’s time and effort, every week, all the time, sometimes every day, and that is a remarkable and unique feature, particularly in the Clinton City Schools.”
The North Carolina Community Action Association says part of what makes the Dark Horse pantry successful is its willingness to tackle food insecurity for students and their families.
“Children cannot learn when they are hungry,” said Sharon C. Goodson, executive director of the North Carolina Community Action Association. “In many rural communities like Clinton, when a child is hungry, we know the family is also hungry. The CHS Dark Horse pantry leverages multiple resources to address multiple systemic needs. It helps care for a child’s nutritional needs so they can learn, but it also provides the whole family with vital food resources to help the household remain stable.”
In the coming weeks, the food pantry will extend its offerings to include personal care items like body wash and deodorant. There are also plans to hold a food distribution drive for families around Easter.
“It’s great when you see a community come together like that to really put the work into it,” Peterson said. “And it’s not just about saying the right things, it’s about actually walking the walk of what you say is important.”