Food pantry at Loch Raven feeding on volunteerism

This week is scheduled to mark the beginning of a new school year at Loch Raven Technical Academy, as well as the advent of a new food pantry run by the Maryland Food Bank.

The middle school on LaSalle Road, which offers four magnet programs — conservation sciences, law and finance, performing arts and visual arts — has an enrollment of about 660 students.

Managed by the middle school's social worker, the food pantry program offers bags of food to parents and caregivers with low income in exchange for their volunteer service.

The goal of the program is to provide food for children going hungry, while also encouraging parents to take an active role in their child's education and development, according to the food bank, whose officials call that involvement "a path out of poverty."

"The children of parents who take an active role in their education are twice as likely to succeed academically," said Nancy Smith, government relations officer for the Maryland Food Bank.

Programwide, parents donated 68,000 volunteer hours last year to a variety of activities, from filing to sweeping a floor.

"They are helping while being helped," Smith said.

The school food pantry program was originally an effort of the nonprofit Center for Poverty Solutions, Smith said. The food bank took it over more than 15 years ago after the center went bankrupt.

Supported by private funds, food pantries are now in 110 city and nine county public schools, including Loch Raven Academy, which, like the other schools, qualifies because at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

"We know there are kids living in poverty," Smith said. "The national news is full of stories about how the price of food has gone up. Everything has gone up.

"It is difficult for a lot of families to make it to the end of the month even with food stamps."

Last year, the Maryland Food Bank distributed 628,000 pounds of non-perishable food and shelf staples to schools, according to Smith.

Donations of food from the general public are helpful to keep the program going, she said, "but cash is king — we can buy wholesale."

Some schools have food pantries on site. Others, like Loch Raven, lack the space, so it becomes a matter of parents ordering food often, but not always, Smith said.

"If Johnny comes to school late and misses breakfast, he can go to the pantry and get a nutrition bar to hold him over until lunch," she said.

Some people might be surprised that a school in the Towson area qualifies for a pantry program. But Smith said that in the last three or four years, the Maryland Food Bank has seen an increase in low- to middle-class families "just not making it."

The cost of living is exceeding their wages, and job situations have not improved.

"I think there are pockets of poverty and a growing number of homeless children throughout Baltimore County," said County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson. "More than ever, because of budget cuts, the Maryland Food Bank is an important resource. "

Meanwhile, Loch Raven Technical Academy is grateful for the new addition.

"We're 100 percent on board," said M.J. Read, an assistant principal. "It's a fabulous service for our families."

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