By Gideon Adams, Senior Manager, Programs and Outreach

There are lots of reasons for Bradley to feel excited about going to school. He’s five-years-old, and couldn’t wait to start Kindergarten. Like the other kids, he looks forward to reading books with his teacher, making arts and crafts, and playing outside with his friends. But for Bradley, the best part of Kindergarten is the food. He doesn’t have any at home and often comes to school crying because he is so hungry. For Bradley, school is a new, amazing place where he gets to eat breakfast and lunch. His teacher even gives him extra snacks sometimes. He loves Kindergarten so much that at the end of the day he starts to cry again. Bradley tells his teacher he doesn’t want to leave—he begs his teacher to let him stay—because, he says, there isn’t anything to eat at home.

Bradley’s teacher wasn’t sure what to do, so she called Marcelle Thomas, Title I Parent Coordinator and School Improvement Specialist for Durham Public Schools, and talked to her about Bradley. Marcelle immediately packed a couple of boxes of food and brought it to the teacher to send home with Bradley and his family.

Photo of Marcelle in school pantry

Marcelle unloads food drive donations to stock the shelves at the school pantry in W.G. Pearson Magnet Elementary School in Durham.

Marcelle Thomas hears stories like this every day from Durham teachers, principals, and counselors about kids who are coming to school hungry. They tell her about students who act out every Friday, getting on the bus crying because they know they won’t have anything to eat until Monday.

They call Marcelle because she helps manage the Weekend Power Pack Program, school pantries, and other emergency food programs for Durham children and their families. When she gets a call, she does everything she can to deliver food to the school. And if the parent can’t come to pick up the food because of their work schedule, she delivers it to their home.

“What we’ve got to realize is if we’ve got a hungry child, we’ve got a hungry family,” said Marcelle Thomas. “We hear reports of cousins eating the small child’s fruit cup or a brother eating all the macaroni. We are now to the point where filling up a kid’s backpack to the brim with food to take home over the weekend just isn’t enough.”

Recognizing this increased need, the Food Bank and local schools have begun to work together to stock food pantries right inside the schools so that children and their families have easier access to emergency food in a familiar place.

Marcelle and her army of volunteers, teachers, and principals have started utilizing the school pantries to send more substantial food home with children in addition to their weekend snacks—food the family can cook and eat together such as pasta, rice, beans, and canned vegetables.

Photo of school pantry shelves

Bare shelves at W.G. Pearson Magnet Elementary School food pantry, which is located in a closet in the cafeteria.

She would like to have a pantry in every school in the Durham Public School District. But with 50 schools, 29 of which have school-wide Title I programs, that’s just not currently possible. “We don’t have a big enough food supply or funding,” said Marcelle. “People just don’t realize the number of food insecure people we have in our schools. Not even the whole county—just in our schools. So we are left scrambling to help children who come to school and beg to get a backpack full of food.”

For the moment, Marcelle has turned her focus to the looming holiday break. “We have got to get food in these homes over the holidays. I do not want kids coming back in tears in January because they haven’t eaten in days,” said Marcelle.

Lately the shelves of the school pantries have been bare. But not to worry, she says, because she knows the Food Bank has recently received lots of food donations from large food drives such as ABC 11 Heart of Carolina and Students Against Hunger. Over the next few days, Marcelle and her volunteers will work quickly to pack boxes of food they hope will get families through the holidays. Then, she says, she will start worrying about inclement weather.

Last month she helped feed 347 people through the Durham Public Schools. “It’s a lot of work, but I don’t mind it because it’s good work,” said Marcelle. “I just wish I could have a pantry in every school, and everybody would have food, and no one would need to call me.”

For now, she takes solace in seeing fewer children crying because of aching bellies, and will work hard to send as many kids as possible home for the holiday break, happy, with a big box of food for their family.

Photo of Marcelle Thomas in school food pantry