Bags are loaded with groceries and the Panther Pantry shelves are full to help feed needy families at St. John Paul II Secondary School in Scarborough. Photo courtesy of St. John Paul II Secondary School

School partners unite to fill the pantry shelves for those in need

  • March 14, 2021

If the Panther Pantry shelves at St. John Paul II Secondary School are full, then staff believe the home cupboards of the school’s most disadvantaged students won’t be empty.

It’s always a challenge — particularly in a pandemic — but with the help of staff, students and the wider community, the shelves are teeming with goods, said chaplain Jill Forester, who launched the program in 2019.

“Without me even knowing the pantry kind of always remains stocked,” said Forester. “It’s not even as though anybody comes and says, ‘Hey Jill, by the way, I did all these groceries.’ They just go and put it in there. They’re kind of these quiet angels. I don’t even know who they are.”

The Panther Pantry program, named after the school mascot, allows students from families in need to take home grocery bags of non-perishable food to help feed their household. It all started when Forester noticed a number of students arriving at the Scarborough, Ont., school without lunch. She started to keep a stash of soup noodles on hand to distribute when needed and over time that grew into a school-wide initiative where staff, alumni and the wider community donated food and money for the program. 

Through word of mouth and teachers who raised concerns, students in need were identified and given access to the pantry. Students were consulted regarding food preferences to ensure that cultural food differences were reflected on the shelves. Kids can “shop” the pantry once a week or whenever there is a need and aren’t limited in what they can take. Staff do whatever they can to ensure students don’t feel any stigma in asking for help.

“Kids would ask if they could go down to the pantry to get some food and we’d have these grocery bags ready for them,” said Forester, who works closely with the school’s child and youth worker Debbie Richards-Broomfield, secretary Vera Mawhinney and members of the caretaking staff to buy groceries weekly and stock the shelves and keep up the program. “They would go down and pick whatever they wanted to. The world was their oyster. We said, take 10 of everything if you want to because for us it’s about maintaining the dignity and integrity of the person.”

"It’s about maintaining the dignity and integrity of the person."

- Jill Forester

During the first COVID lockdown of 2020, the team sent out a questionnaire to parents to identify families that might be in need. Initially 16 families responded but that number increased to 25. The school had run another fundraising initiative a while back, but the partnership with the group they were working with fell through. Staff chose to repurpose the money for the pantry program, and over the first COVID lockdown was able to send out $200 food gift cards monthly to families in need. 

When money ran low again, The Angel Foundation for Learning stepped in to help. The foundation is run by the Toronto Catholic District School Board and supports students and families through nutrition programs, bursaries, student equity and emergency funds. It had been funding the breakfast program at St. John Paul II and began directing funds towards the pantry program as well. A number of families of Grade 12 students who were entitled to a refund on their yearly $50 student fee have also donated those funds to the pantry.

“This is a wonderful example of how local leaders on the ground in our schools like chaplains and social workers have been able to use their creativity to organize a community pantry so the money and food can reach as many students and families as possible, despite COVID restrictions,” said John Yan, executive director of the Angel Foundation for Learning. 

With the in-person pantry back up and running with students back in class, once a week staff replenish the pantry with between $800 to $900 in supplies. The program has also been aided by school alumni, local business owners and others in the community.

“I can’t speak enough about how much of a community project it is because so many hands are making it work,” said Forester. “It doesn’t take anything more than for us to just simply ask and we receive. That’s a real testament to our tight-knit and supportive community. I love it.”

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