Family Center within St. Paul school expands its food pantry

Sometimes kids need more of a helping hand than their teachers are able to provide. So Neighborhood House has partnered with three St. Paul schools to try and fill the gap.  

At Dayton’s Bluff Elementary, John A. Johnson Elementary, and St. Paul Music Academy, Neighborhood House runs Family Centers. Their purpose is to connect families to resources and help them navigate any crisis or problem they’re facing. Staff known as Family Coaches aim to provide families the knowledge and confidence to empower them to independently work through any future issues.

Families may connect with a Family Center for access to community resources including programs to help with rent and utility payments, applying for benefits like medical, disability, or unemployment, as well as accessing basic needs items like household or school supplies, diapers, and food for their families.  

Tucked away at Dayton’s Bluff Elementary is a modestly sized Family Center working to support struggling students and their families with whatever needs they have. And within the center is a growing food pantry that helps families get enough food for the week.

You could call it Family Coach Greta’s pet project. Back when she first started working at Neighborhood House, there wasn’t much of a pantry, just a small shelf of canned vegetables. “It was a pretty sad food pantry,” she says. She noticed that families needed food, household and hygiene items, and after school snacks for kids. 

Working to fill the need she saw, she partnered with Achievement Plus through the Wilder Foundation to receive a grant through the East Side Health and Wellbeing Initiative. With this funding, Greta has been able to expand the offerings and create a valuable resource for the community. “I’m just really excited about it,” she smiles. She bought things like pasta, rice, pancake mix, mac and cheese, canned tuna and fruit, fruit and grain bars, and more. And for families who need household and hygiene items, Greta purchased toilet paper, shampoo, dish soap, laundry detergent, and paper towels. 

Because the Family Center isn’t a true food market, they don’t have space for things like walk-in freezers or coolers to store produce, dairy, and meat. But for the families who use the pantry, the shelf-stable foods fit their needs. “Families just want something they can warm up and heat,” says Greta, explaining that when in crisis and juggling responsibilities, the ease and quickness of a microwavable meal is just what a family needs.

Unfortunately, the pandemic threw a wrench in Greta’s plans for the pantry. When Dayton’s Bluff Elementary closed like all other Minnesota schools, people couldn’t access the Family Center. But now that they’re open again, more families are stopping by and using the pantry each month.

In February, she distributed 80 pounds of food and household supplies, in March she distributed 130 — and in April she distributed 570 pounds!

Not all students are back in the classroom yet, but Greta expects that the need will continue to increase as Dayton’s Bluff hosts a summer school program and as in-person teaching becomes the norm again next year. 

Greta isn’t done yet. She plans on continuing to improve the pantry and adapt to families’ needs. “In my wildest dreams, I would have a little freezer and I would love to have those ready-made freezer meals,” she shares.

You can help families connect to food and housing assistance, crisis resources, and education programs by making a gift today.