More than 678,000 people in Chicago and Cook County, including 250,000 children, receive emergency food each year. In an effort to reduce hunger in their own community, Henson Elementary School, located in North Lawndale, is working to bring nutritious food options to neighborhood families. Teaming up with the staff of Erie Henson School-Based Health Center and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the school hosts a program called Healthy Kids Distribution, providing healthy food choices to the families of students in need.“This program aligns perfectly with Erie’s mission to increase access to resources that shouldn’t be considered privileges, but as human rights in an effort to lead a healthy life” says Tiosha Goss, Erie’s Coordinator for School Based and Oral Health Programs. “Furthermore, it supports Erie’s mission to provide resources to those in need.”
Tiosha assists with program outreach and supports the program’s food pantry volunteers during days of food distribution. Working with community agencies, Henson parents, AmeriCorps volunteers, Erie support staff, and Chicago Public School staff, she helps ensure the program’s goals stay at the forefront of their operations. The program offers family-focused services, encourages healthy eating and living, and aims to provide a minimum of 50 families with healthy foods at no cost to them. “There are many things that I enjoy about working with the program,” Tiosha says. “Getting to know the families that come to the distributions and playing an integral role in providing an invaluable resource to the community.”
Indeed an invaluable resource to the residents of North Lawndale, the program held its first distribution in March of this year following a needs assessment that found access to food in the community scarce. Already central to the community’s youth and their families, the school agreed to take on the important role of housing a permanent community food pantry. Every two weeks a delivery of assorted food items from the Greater Chicago Food Depository reaches the school’s team of six to twelve volunteers. These volunteers not only prepare the food pantry for operation, but also actively assist customers with their shopping and clean up after distribution. Fresh produce, grains such as pasta and rice and proteins like peanut butter and beans are set up to resemble a grocery store, making it easier for customers to select food items based upon their preference and need. Item quantity limits are set by the Food Depository, who covers the cost of the food needed to run the program for the first year.
“Currently, we only serve Henson families. We are seeking to open distribution up to the North Lawndale community as a whole,” Tiosha says. In further efforts to involve the community and reduce hunger, Erie Henson School-Based Health Center, located within the school, hopes to start a new program to empower North Lawndale youth to give back to their community. Called the Healthy Garden Initiative, Erie would give a group of Henson students the tools to start a community garden and grow vegetables such as peppers, lettuce, and carrots. Parents of the students will be invited to participate and the proposed garden will donate any surplus vegetables to the Healthy Kids Distribution food pantry.
“Having a gardening program would provide a hands-on opportunity for students and teachers to really drive home the importance of healthy eating, a major goal of the food pantry,” says Tiosha. “And the gardening program could be used as a tool to further engage parents and educate them on a cost-effective way to provide healthy eating options for their family.”