School board chair’s idea grows into thriving nonprofit run by students
Patrons wait their turn, sometimes as long as 45 minutes, to shop in the retired school bus Centennial High School students have turned into a food pantry. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Shar Giard, school board chair for the Centennial School District, had an idea: What about turning an old school bus into a community food pantry?
“What are you supposed to tell her? No, she is nuts?” said Adriann Hardin, a Centennial business teacher.
So Hardin invited Giard to pitch her idea to Hardin’s Future Business Leaders of America students, and three years later the Food for Families thrives, having helped feed more than 2,500 families.
On Wednesday, the old yellow school bus rested in Centennial’s parking lot, next to Southeast 182nd Avenue in Gresham. A diverse line of people waited patiently, with kids darting about. Hardin checked them in at a card table with flyers in English, Spanish and Russian. Personal shoppers in red aprons, mostly Centennial students, guided patrons through the renovated school bus.
Metal shelves holding a variety of canned and packaged foods, grouped by food types, have replaced the seats. Patrons get to choose foods in each category, with amounts based on the sizes of their families. A “supplemental” section offers treats such as bags of Skittles. Patrons pass a couple of refrigerators for dairy products before exiting out the back and down a ramp.
Ice chests of meats and tables of fresh produce, from eggplants to strawberries, wait outside. Families walk away with bulging bags, typically enough for three to five days. Patrons praise the quality, freshness and selection of the food.
Hardin says school district support has been instrumental in the pantry’s growth, and Giard talks enthusiastically about the program.
“I can’t believe that we are serving as many families as we are, that we are distributing as much food as we are,” she said.
Antonio Martinez, one of the Centennial High School students who helped start Food for Families, keeps everything running smoothly Wednesday as the pantry coordinator, the nonprofit’s first paid position. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Last school year, the retired bus served more than 50,000 pounds of food, according to Hardin. The pantry opens for a few hours twice a month, usually serving between 60 and 80 families.
The business started as a hands-on, real-world lesson for Hardin’s class. She set her students to researching nonprofits, making a business plan and navigating the legal paperwork and state rules.
They spent 2014 deciding how the food pantry would work. They had to create a business model, find materials and enlist the aid of Centennial manufacturing students. They applied to become a partner with the Oregon Food Bank to receive food.
The bus’s first distribution was in July 2015. The original plan called for an outfitted school bus to travel to different schools in the district. They discovered that was impractical. Moving around created logistical problems for the high school volunteers, both with getting there and with losing class time.
“I am in the classroom full time and my students are supposed to be in the classroom,” Hardin said. “We quickly, quickly learned this was also full time. It takes all day to set the pantry up.”
So in 2016, the bus settled at Centennial High School. Students staff the bus, and Food for Families recruits from clubs all over campus, from sports to academic and extracurricular clubs. Life skills students take delivery of the food, and manufacturing students make repairs to the bus. School food drives contribute to the bus.
Food for Families has taken another leap forward for the 2017-18 school year. The students who had started the project had graduated and management of the pantry had grown beyond Hardin’s available time, so they hired Rockwood Community Development Corp. to run the bus. But the Centennial students had two stipulations: The pantry had to be staffed by Centennial students, and it had to stay in its signature bus.
Dina DiNucci, program manager at Rockwood, wholeheartedly supports keeping the bus, which she thinks gives the food pantry a unique appeal.
“It’s not your average food pantry,” she said. “Word had gotten out it’s really friendly and functional.”
She also credits the student volunteers.
“They’ve been incredibly professional but very welcoming,” she said. “They make people comfortable going through this.”
The school bus is a shopping experience, not a handout. Food for Families serves a diverse community, with different culinary needs and wants. The pantry allows patrons to choose the foods they like.
Families check in, declare their need and get paired up with a personal shopper. Centennial students fluent in Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hmong and other languages help make the families feel more at ease.
Volunteering drives home the real problems of food insecurity and also shows students how they can make a difference. Brian Koll, a Centennial senior who helped with the bus planning as a freshman, says that when he hears about a charity helping 30,000 people, it’s just numbers, but when he gets to the end of a shift and they helped 75 families, that has meaning.
“It’s awesome to see when food gets to people who need it,” he said.
Koll says he is learning about customer service, time management, communications and especially organizational skills.
Ellie Graham, a Portland State student who helped found Food for Families when she was at Centennial, guides a patron through the pantry food bus. The symbols on the shelf sign correspond to family sizes and indicate how many items a patron can take from that category. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Ellie Graham, one of the founders, is studying business administration at Portland State University, but she still volunteers.
She credits founding a nonprofit as a high schooler with teaching her “adult skills,” such as filing taxes and accounting, but she places equal value on the sense of community the bus fosters. She has seen patrons of the pantry also be donors when they have the means.
Hardin speaks warmly of the community’s embrace.
“The craziest part to me is that these kids in these families are making these donations to help their community members when the majority of them need it themselves,” Hardin said. “The students who are volunteering and helping their direct community also shop. At the end of their shift, they’ll shop for groceries for their family.”
In Centennial School District, 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
For Stephani Jeronimo, a Centennial senior, it’s all about helping people.
“It’s nice being part of changing somebody’s world,” she said. “The best part is when little kids see something extra, like candy, and saying, ‘Yeah, you can have it.’ It just makes their day.”
Antonio Martinez helped start Food for Families and now he works part time as its pantry coordinator while studying pre-med at Concordia University.
“It started as just an idea,” he said. “To see the way it is growing has been amazing.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA