Mobile Food Pantry helps Opelousas families feed their families _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Mary Ellen Vincent, a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley, volunteers at Second Harvest Food Bank after the donation of $50,000 by her company to the food bank on Wednesday afternoon in Lafayette. Morgan Stanley, the financial services corporation, will donate more than $4 million over a period of three years to food banks like Second Harvest as part of their Feeding America campaign.

Once a month, families gather inside Opelousas’ South Street Elementary School’s cafeteria to collect boxes filled with fresh produce, dairy products and canned goods — all provided through the Second Harvest Food Bank’s Mobile Food Pantry.

Because the program has been consistent, families have come to rely on it, said Mary-Kay Rath, developing manager at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Lafayette, which supports the Opelousas program.

“It’s a worry that is taken off of them because if a child is hungry, they have trouble focusing. They are thinking about where their next meal will come from,” Rath said.

Second Harvest introduced the Mobile Food Pantry program in Opelousas last year and plans to expand it next year to two schools in Orleans Parish.

Liz Stone is a parent who participates in the South Street Elementary program and has a son in the fifth grade.

“The program provides him with snacks, and it gives him the reassurance that he will have something to eat,” Stone said.

She said she has been in the program since last year.

“It’s been a very positive experience. They are respectful, never demeaning, never judgmental,” Stone said.

Investment banking firm Morgan Stanley on Wednesday presented Rath with a $50,000 grant to help fund the Mobile Food Pantry.

The grant is part of the latest phase in Morgan Stanley’s more than $14 million commitment to Feeding America and its network of 200 local food banks that distribute millions of meals every year to children and families across the U.S.

“From our Lafayette facility, we help 27,000 children who are at risk of being hungry,” Rath said. “Without the support of Morgan Stanley, we would not be able to provide this program.”

Rath said their goal is to increase the quality of food available for families and the Morgan Stanley donation will help provide fresh produce in the food boxes.

In the past, it’s been difficult at times to meet the needs of everyone who needs food.

“There was one month when we had two families come in late, but we only had one box left,” said Mary Miller, South Street Elementary’s principal. “We weren’t sure really what to do, but one of the families offered the box to the other, saying they needed it more.

“We all just stood there in shock,” she said.

Now, Miller said, on the day the Mobile Food Pantry is coming to the school, she asks the students whether their families are planning to participate.

“We make sure there is a box set aside for them,” she said.

Miller said about nine volunteers, including Gale Johnson, manager of South Street Elementary’s Child Nutrition Department, clear the cafeteria after the students have finished eating lunch to prepare the boxes for that night when the families will come by to pick them up.

For the teachers, there is an added benefit to having the program at the school.

“It’s nice that we get to see the kids with their parents, and we become acquainted with the families,” Johnson said. “There is this one parent that comes and picks up the food each month, and every time, she lets us know how much she appreciates it. We know it’s a great help for her and her children, but it’s the way she tells you how appreciative she is that makes us feel like we are accomplishing something.”

On top of being able to provide the aid for families, Miller said she also has seen an increase in parental involvement at the school.

“We try to schedule the food pantry on a parent-teacher night. It’s a big draw and gets parents here,” Miller said.

While the school has not hosted a Mobile Food Pantry yet this school year, it has had one parent-teacher meeting, which drew a large crowd.

Miller said she believes she knows why parent involvement has increased.

“I think it’s the fact that we are here, and we are trying to help the community out,” Miller said.