It’s no secret that students learn better when their stomachs are full. That’s why many schools in central Iowa and elsewhere operate food pantries in partnership with the Food Bank of Iowa. But Scavo Full Service High School in Des Moines takes the concept a step further, operating a school pantry along with a host of additional services. It’s all an effort to help students get off to the best start possible.

Scavo provides an alternative setting for its 500 students, who come from throughout the Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) system. Students who enroll at Scavo “need different academic pathways, more flexibility in their schedules,” observed Lyn Marchant, Scavo’s community school coordinator. “The barriers are different for all of the students,” she said. “Sometimes, the parents are the barriers.” At any given time, she noted, about 30 Scavo students are homeless. Some are young parents who need the school’s on-site daycare. Others are the primary caregivers in working families, many of which move around frequently. Some are slightly older than traditional students.

With that in mind, DMPS has implemented its first full service model at Scavo to give students their best chance at success. The school pantry, operated in partnership with the Food Bank of Iowa, is just one of many support services at Scavo. The school, which is housed at Central Campus in downtown Des Moines, has a community center which features the school pantry, the Nolden Gentry Dental Clinic, and a Primary Health Care Clinic.

The school pantry was a “quick win,” Marchant said, when Scavo relocated to Central Campus and the full service model was adopted two years ago. “From the time we approached the Food Bank of Iowa it was two weeks until we were up and running. “We had the space and we knew they were interested. It was a match made in heaven.”

Students learn about the school pantry from a variety of sources, including their school orientation, referrals from teachers, and visits to the community center’s clinics. The pantry is open to all students and parents of students in the DMPS; however, most of the pantry’s visitors are Scavo students.

Every Scavo teacher’s key works in the school pantry, to make it easier for students to access the resource. Marchant said she tells frequent student visitors, “You know the drill. Sign out and shut the door when you’re done.” She also noted, “The pantry has never once been abused in the two years that it’s been open.” Rather, she said, “Many of the kids who come in here are so thoughtful. They’re always thinking of their younger siblings.”

Marchant makes contact with as many of the students as possible. “When they come in, that’s an entry point to form a relationship,” she said. She helps the students look at their households and their needs so they can put together complete, nutritious combinations. “When you pick up tuna, pasta, and soup, you don’t just have food items, you have a meal,” she said. She also helps the students stretch their food dollars, encouraging the students to buy the more expensive items such as ham and milk with their money and picking up free potatoes from the pantry so they can make scalloped potatoes. “I always help them plan for the weekend, knowing they may have nothing at home,” Marchant said. “Our kids, at the age of 15 or 16, aren’t equipped to feed their families.” And as the staff member who places the orders with the Food Bank of Iowa, she ensures that the students have what they need for complete meals. “If I order spaghetti, I want sauce,” she said.

Marchant has also worked hard to make the school pantry discreet and user friendly. “It can be embarrassing sometimes to use the school pantry,” she said. “Sometimes the kids must take the food on the bus. So there are no restrictions on how many times they can use the pantry, and they may put the food in their backpacks. They know that if there is something they need, we’re here to help with that.”

The pantry itself is small, about the size of a large closet, which means Marchant places frequent orders with the Food Bank of Iowa. The school pantry stays busy, serving about 45 students each month. Marchant said those students support a total of about 350 family and household members. Many of those students return the favor by straightening up the pantry, unpacking orders, and checking expiration dates. “So often those kids just feel like they should give back,” she said.

While Marchant noted that the pantry could be larger, she is reluctant to move it from the school’s community center, showing with pride the neighboring fully equipped dental clinic and medical exam rooms.

“This is a one-stop shop,” she said. “We’re all about giving our students an authentic high school experience.”

— Tracy Petersen, Hunger Correspondent