Elementary School Opens Food Bank

Originally published Jan. 27, 2015

When Jeanne-Marie Mazzaferro noticed that many of her students were asking for extra snacks during her lessons this past fall, she became concerned for the well-being of the students attending the Phillips Avenue Elementary School.She took her concern to Debra Rodgers, the Riverside school’s principal, and the two contemplated the idea of launching a food pantry to assist the families of the estimated 600 students—ranging from kindergarten through the fourth grade—who attend the school, as well as members of the surrounding community.

Phillips Avenue School has the highest number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch—about 82 percent—in the Riverhead School District.

Less than six months later, Ms. Mazzaferro and Ms. Rodgers, along with representatives from Island Harvest, a Long Island food bank that provides meals for thousands of people in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, and a group of donors who have helped stock the pantry, cut the ceremonial ribbon and opened the pantry doors last Thursday, January 22.

“Hopefully, by being in the school, parents and families will feel more comfortable coming in,” Ms. Mazzaferro said.

Based on the turnout, it seems like they did. On its opening night, food from the pantry fed 15 families and a total of 71 people, according to Ms. Rodgers.

“It was nice to see some of the students come with their families and go give their teachers a hug or say hello,” Ms. Rodgers said Friday morning. “It’s building a culture of family within the school, which is really what it’s all about.”

Island Harvest, which provides the bulk of the donated food and goods for the pantry, has been working with Phillips Avenue for a number of years. Students in need have the opportunity to enroll in a backpack program, which provides food for the weekends for about 190 students who attend the school.

Now, Island Harvest is partnering with Phillips Avenue to keep the pantry full.

“It’s about planting a seed that’s going to spread throughout the families of this community,” Ms. Rodgers said during an assembly last Thursday morning, and took the opportunity to teach the students about giving back. “Throughout your life … we want you to understand your responsibility to each other.”

Initially, the plan was to open the pantry to Phillips Avenue families for now and, later on, open it to the community as a whole, but after one night, the plan changed.

“We are really seeing a need,” Ms. Rodgers said. “I think we should shift our focus to a community pantry.”

The pantry, which is stocked with non-perishable food, drinks, baby food, diapers and soap, is open on the second and fourth Thursday of each month, from 6:30 until 8 p.m.

Teachers and staff members will volunteer to work at the pantry during those hours. There were 12 volunteers last Thursday night who helped pack bags and explain how the process will work. Eventually, the goal is to have members of the community volunteer at the pantry as well.

Families need to provide only basic information about their household: how many people, their ages and the month of their birthdays. Ms. Rodgers explained that one of the local Girl Scout troops plans to donate cake baking supplies to include in bags for people’s birthdays.

“I hope it’s always overflowing like this.” Ms. Mazzaferro said last Thursday morning. However, after feeding 15 families, the pantry was about half empty on Friday.

When they arrive at the pantry, families will get a shopping list of what is available and be able to pick what they would like. “We want to make sure they’re receiving food they like and their family will eat,” Ms. Rodgers said.

Donations for the pantry will be accepted during the school day, between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Those interested can also donate gift cards to food stores, preferably Stop & Shop or Costco, by sending the card to the school with a label marked “Food Pantry Donation.” Those wishing to donate in honor or memory of a specific person, or to volunteer at the pantry, can call (631) 591-5987 or email phillips.pantry@riverhead.net.

“Last night was a field of dreams,” Ms. Rodgers said on Friday. “If we build it, they will come, and they did. Now, it’s going to be about engaging the community and networking to keep the pantry stocked.

“It takes a village, and we have a great team here,” she continued. “I’m so honored to be a part of this whole thing.”