Nonprofit, church help set up food pantries at Orange County schools

When students at 13 Orange County elementary schools head back to class next week, they'll find a new, experimental feature on campus — a food pantry to help desperate families.

The "Love Pantry" program, funded by a $28,000 grant from First Baptist Church of Orlando, is the first widespread effort in the county to feed families through the schools.

"I'm concerned that children are not getting food at night or on weekends," said Robert Stuart, executive director of the nonprofit Christian Service Center for Central Florida, who came up with the idea. "And I'm concerned that teachers are going out and buying food with their own money and taking it to their students' families."

Stuart also is an Orlando city commissioner. Early this summer, he approached First Baptist to see if the church would be willing to devote part of a historic $5.6 million offering by its members to launch the program. A church task force formed to divvy up the funds decided to pay operating costs for the pilot program's first semester, and it may give more next semester.

"On the one hand, we don't see this as a short-term investment," said Danny de Armas, a senior associate pastor at First Baptist. "But the problem is big enough that it's going to take the whole community."

The money will help pay for discounted canned and dry goods from Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. At each school, a food-pantry coordinator will make sure that needy families are discreetly given the food, probably when parents come to collect their children at day's end. The Christian Service Center will monitor demand and help pass out information about other community resources that could help parents.

The nonprofit also will try to recruit other organizations to adopt a school for the second semester.

"We have wonderful, wonderful children here and good, honest, hard-working families, but right now, the economy has dealt them a blow," said Principal Lynne Wassatt of Rock Lake Elementary in Orlando, one of the participating schools. "We're thrilled by this idea."

At Rock Lake, 96 percent of the students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-cost lunch program. Last year, nearly a quarter of children there were homeless or living with another family. Throughout Orange County, nearly 4,000 students are deemed homeless.

The program is not meant to be an ongoing resource for families, Wassatt said. Instead, it's a way to offer help in a crisis.

Kathy Marsh, a spokeswoman for Orange County Public Schools, said there will be no shortage of demand. "There's definitely a big need," she said. "I have not had one principal whose school is involved in this who isn't feeling absolutely blessed that this is going to happen."

Other elementary schools in the pilot program are Catalina, Fern Creek, Grand Avenue, Lake Como, Lake Eola Charter, Lake Silver, Nap Ford Community School, Orange Center, Orlo Vista, Pineloch, Princeton and Richmond Heights. or 407-420-5503

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