More than 1,200 pounds of fresh and healthy food rolled up to Coeur d’Alene Assembly Church on Wednesday as volunteers prepared to open the church food pantry to the public for the first time.
On hand for the heavy lifting were four 11-year-old girls from Borah Elementary School next door. The school ambassadors and student council officers spent close to an hour unloading a van and stocking shelves with milk, cheese, yogurt, apples, eggs, potatoes, rice and more – enough food for 1,000 meals.
“I’m just imagining the smiles on their faces when they get all their food,” said fifth-grade student Athena Williams. “I’m just really happy that they can eat without worrying or anything.”
“It makes your heart warm,” added Ashlynn Wild, also in fifth grade.
Second Harvest, the regional hunger-relief network, will provide monthly food deliveries in a partnership that includes the church and school as well as the Eat Smart Idaho program of the University of Idaho Extension Service.
“This is one more opportunity to get food to hungry children in North Idaho,” said Julie Humphreys, community relations manager for Second Harvest.
The food pantry will be open each Thursday, starting this week, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. for anyone in need of fresh produce, dairy products, meat, bread and other grains.
“Anyone who needs food is welcome,” said Terah Chance, the food pantry manager.
Hunger is a growing concern in Coeur d’Alene in neighborhoods such as Midtown, served by Borah and Bryan elementary schools.
Nine in 10 students at Borah qualify for free or reduced school lunches, and the school offers breakfast and lunch at no charge to all 330 of its students. Borah also has a weekend backpack program in which food for the weekend goes home with 44 students each Friday.
It made sense for the school to collaborate with the church on the food pantry, said James Curb, the school district’s programs director and homeless liaison.
“We’re really just trying to break down any of the barriers to serving this community,” Curb said.
A similar food pantry is in the works at Coeur d’Alene High School, he said.
Coeur d’Alene Assembly Church, at 2200 N. Seventh St., has a history of supporting Borah and its families with volunteer help, clothing donations and more, Principal Rick Kline said.
“We don’t see a barrier there,” Kline said. “They’ve always been there for us.”
Organizers also want to help the families learn about nutrition and food preparation.
“We started with that idea: How do we bring health to the families in need?” Curb said.
That’s a priority for Second Harvest, Humphreys said. “The partnership is trying to not just feed people but feed them well and teach them nutrition education.”
Visitors to the food pantry will get to choose what they want to take home, rather than be handed a box of items they may not know how to prepare. They also will be provided food samples and recipes to inspire them to try new things.
“When people stand in a food bank line and you give them a beautiful bag of lentils from the Palouse, they don’t know what to do with it,” Humphreys said.
The “choice pantry” approach also can lead to families selecting healthier food, said Shelly Johnson, a professor of nutrition and food safety with the UI Extension Service.
“And because it’s set up more like a grocery store, it’s really developing dignity within families,” Johnson said, “because it’s hard sometimes for families to admit they need help, they need support.”
The church hopes to bring in the Extension Service to teach nutrition and cooking classes as well.
The congregation of 300 also will donate to the pantry, which previously has been open only to church members, and the public is also encouraged to contribute.
Pastor Dan Christ watched Wednesday as the four girls from Borah busily unpacked the last of the boxes, filling the shelves and dairy cooler.
“It’s awesome, incredible,” he said. “I think it’s exactly what I hoped for, but even beyond.”
Students from the school will continue to volunteer at the food pantry throughout the year.
As Athena put it, “It’s a real honor to be here.”