One in five. That’s the number of people in the Tampa Bay area who do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, which is known as being food insecure.
Across the Tampa Bay area there are about 700,000 food insecure people, according to data from Feeding Tampa Bay, an organization focused on providing food to families in west-central Florida. The 2017 census estimates the total population around 3 million people.
A common misconception is that people who are hungry are probably malnourished. Being food insecure doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has no food, only that food can become scarce or food sparing techniques (adding water to soup or adults skipping meals so the kids can eat) are commonplace. Often when food becomes plentiful, overeating may happen, or in an effort to make it last longer the purchased food is cheaper and lower quality. When large amounts of processed foods are consumed, it can lead to weight gain.
Understanding this and the health implications, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital screens families for food insecurity whenever possible. When a family is identified, it is connected to nutrition counseling and an accessible food pantry.
This led some to wonder: “Are we really doing enough?”
Parallel Paths Converge
In 2017, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital began working with Feeding Tampa Bay to learn more about how to set up a food pantry and how food insecurity affects the population that the hospital serves.
At the same time, the Health Squad at neighboring Lakewood High School was discussing their own plan to take on a community issue.
The school adopted Lead2Feed, a national program with curriculum that teaches high school students how to become leaders through community service. Part of this includes identifying a social issue and developing and implementing a plan to make an impact on that community need. The issue they chose—without any outside input—was food insecurity. To start the program, the Health Squad began organizing food and clothing drives to help fellow students.
Then, Hurricane Irma happened.
To assist impacted families, Johns Hopkins All Children’s began hosting mobile food pantries and the Health Squad volunteered to help distribute food. When the school mentioned its interest in providing a food pantry on campus, everything clicked into place.
School administration took a chance on the concept and the food pantry opened shortly after the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
“As a hospital, we helped bring the resources together, but the school has really taken it on,” says Janelle Garcia, Ph.D., program coordinator at Johns Hopkins All Children’s. “We support the pantry financially through the Kohl’s Cares grant, Feeding Tampa Bay delivers the food and the students are the ones who manage it under faculty supervision.”
Every other Tuesday a food delivery arrives at the school. Students are there to accept the delivery, take a full inventory and stock the food. On Fridays, students in need are able to stop by the pantry before they go home for the weekend. To ensure that each family will get items they actually want to use, the pantry follows a choice model allowing participating students to “shop” for food.
In the spring semester, the hospital will start offering cooking demos and classes to provide education emphasizing health and nutrition. With little control on what kinds of foods, or how much of a certain product will be delivered, sharing the knowledge on how to prepare items like tomato soup in a variety of nutritious ways is essential for ensuring families get the most out of the pantry.
10 Turkey Dinners
One of the mobile pantries the Health Squad volunteered at occurred right before Thanksgiving in 2017. When classmates showed up with their families to pick up food, there was no embarrassment or judgment—only compassion. So much so that one student who was helped by the mobile pantry, on his own, worked with Feeding Tampa Bay to have 10 turkey dinners with sides delivered to the school for families in need. It has now become a yearly tradition at the school.
“These kids are very compassionate with each other and will even negotiate to make sure everyone gets what they want,” Garcia says. “This is really uncommon in similar programs for teens.”
These kindhearted feelings extended into the permanent pantry located on the school campus.
Lauryn, a senior at Lakewood, has been involved with the Health Squad since the beginning. After going through her own lifestyle transformation years earlier, she sees the program as a way to continue that journey and to support others on theirs.
By talking with other students, Lauryn recognized that food insecurity was something some of their peers were dealing with. From these, she became key in planning and advocating for the pantry. With the resources in place, now she helps out when she can from inventory to cleaning up to being there for distribution.
“We are students, but we are also a family. No one should be without these necessities,” Lauryn says. “Seeing the joy this brings is so rewarding.”
Isaiah, a freshman student at Lakewood, knows firsthand the impact the pantry makes in the lives of fellow students. He joins classmates on Friday afternoons to bring home food for his family.
This availability of this resource has left a profound impact on the ninth grader. Recognizing how food affects everyone has inspired him to join the student movement for more options in school cafeterias. Recently, he attended a Pinellas County Schools summit where he advocated on behalf of his classmates for more nutritious breakfast options with better availability for students throughout the county.
Bringing Research to the Table
Food pantries in high schools are not something that is common. Students may be reluctant to engage and it can be difficult to identify the kids who are truly in need.
At Lakewood, the school social worker identifies kids on free lunch or a part of the homeless population while teachers and students in the program may refer other students. Each potential participant then meets with the social worker to ensure that the right families are benefiting.
“Our No. 1 goal when it started in September was learning how to identify these families,” Garcia explains. “We are now working with Pinellas County schools to implement a food insecurity screening questionnaire with the mandatory paperwork that is sent home at the beginning of every year.”
Johns Hopkins All Children’s is also a part of the Hunger Action Alliance (HAA), a network of organizations across the Tampa Bay area working together to address food insecurity. The goal of this group has three areas of focus:
- Education of what food insecurity is and how community workers can identify it and connect those people to the right resources
- Research to establish best practices, which will ensure that the right people are getting what they need without wasting resources
- Transforming the local community to better assist families and make a difference in the health of the population
The Lakewood High School food pantry will play a key role in research. With little data available on establishing and running a pantry in high schools, the hope is this one will inform the model for replication across the nation.
Lauryn adds, “We may be young, but we understand that we can make a difference and help others.”
About The Health Squad
The Health Squad is a peer-led, student-driven health and wellness program. Today it is found at two Pinellas County schools: Lakewood High School and Dixie Hollins High School.
The first squad started at Lakewood in 2014 under a grant awarded to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital from Florida Blue. With tremendous buy-in from students, faculty and administration and grant funding from Kohl’s Cares, the program expanded to the second school in 2018.
Through their work on campus and at the mobile food pantries, the Lakewood Health Squad was award a $1,000 grant from Lead2Feed for technology. They used the grant to purchase iPads, which are used to track inventory in the pantry.