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Columbia's Bryant Woods, CAC partner to open food pantry

School counselor Ashley Armstead is coordinator of the food pantry at Bryant Woods Elementary in Columbia. The pantry is open two days a week for students and their families.
School counselor Ashley Armstead is coordinator of the food pantry at Bryant Woods Elementary in Columbia. The pantry is open two days a week for students and their families. (Brian Krista, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Administrators at Bryant Woods Elementary School aren't just looking to support the school's students; they're aiming to help out families from the school's community as well.

Through a partnership with the Community Action Council of Howard County, Bryant Woods opened an in-house food pantry stocked with non-perishable food items from the Howard County Food Bank on Sept. 23.

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While other schools have similar initiatives, such as sending food home to families through Blessings in a Backpack program, Bryant Woods, in Columbia, is the first school in the county to house a food pantry.

"This is a community-based school and we want to be supportive of everyone," said Principal Kelley Hough, who is credited with the idea to launch the food pantry.

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Hough, a former vice principal at Veterans Elementary School, said she learned of a possible partnership with the Community Action Council while at Veterans, and when she was appointed principal at Bryant Woods, thought it would be a "no-brainer" to reach out to CAC.

"We want to make sure our students and families are taken care of," she said.

Bryant Woods is one of Howard County's 12 Title I elementary schools and more than 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced meals.

Bryant Woods is also one of five county elementary schools that has implemented the new Elementary School Model this year, which created a full-day prekindergarten program, instituted Spanish instruction for students and introduced a telemedicine program with the University of Maryland.

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With the food pantry partnership, Bryant Woods is hoping to be a model for other schools to ensure they're fully invested in the community, according to Vice Principal Adrienne Williams-McKinney.

"We consider ourselves trailblazers," she said.

School counselor Ashley Armstead, coordinator of the school's food pantry program, said only one family utilized the pantry in its first week, but she expects that number to grow once more parents become aware that it's available.

"Any support that they need is here," Armstead said. "I think it will be a great, great program once it evolves."

Community members who utilize the food pantry are not required to have a child enrolled in the school, and can receive about a week's worth of items, including drinks and non-perishable food items.

With the addition of Bryant Woods, CAC now operates 14 food pantries.

"We value the synergy CAC has built with the school system and this is another way we can help end childhood hunger in Howard County and serve our community in nontraditional ways," CAC President Bita Dayhoff said in a statement. "Our goal is to increase access to healthy foods for our families with low income and be where the need is. We're there for the community to provide services and programs for individuals and families who need them."

The Bryant Woods pantry will be open on Tuesdays and Fridays. To access the food pantry, community members are required to visit the main office where they will fill out CAC paperwork, but to ensure confidentiality they are not required to sign into the school's guest register, Armstead said.

While they are working on the CAC paperwork, a staff member will go to the pantry —about a minute's walk away — and bag up the items.

"It's very quick, very confidential and we're not interrupting instruction," Armstead said.

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