“The only meals they ate were from our cafeteria.”

Sally Carbonaro* is a mother of two. She’s also the pantry coordinator at Hamilton Elementary School in Novato, Marin County. In a recent interview, she reflected on the impact the school’s pantry has had in the year since it opened.

We started our pantry— we call it the Hamilton Family Market—almost a year ago. When we first started, we were serving 50 families each week. And now, we’re up to 300. We’re there every single Wednesday from 6:00 A.M. until about a quarter to nine.

One thing we’re particularly proud of is that we run the market every single week. We’re there even if school’s out, even if it’s a vacation or it’s a holiday. And we’re open through Christmas, Thanksgiving and the summer.  I think that our constant presence over the past year has been really powerful. It shows that we’re not just here because school is here – we’re here for our community.

From the very beginning, we were careful to position the pantry just as we would any other school event. That is, any family with a student in our school can come. And so because of the way the pantry is portrayed, there’s no stigma for the children and families who attend. The students don’t see the market as a reason to tease each other on the playground, and many parents and grandparents volunteer. It’s seen as another community event, just like any other. Because we’ve taken that approach, we’ve been able to reach out to our more vulnerable families with these really critical needs almost under the radar.

Families receive free, fresh produce and other foods every week.

… I’d love to say the recession has started to fade.  In fact, it’s the opposite.

A lot of people would probably be surprised to see the hunger and homelessness we encounter. It’s a wake-up call, especially here in Marin County. We discovered that we had between 100 and 110 homeless students at our school at any given time, and the only meals they ate were from our cafeteria. So not only were the students not getting a meal before or after school, the rest of their family wasn’t, either. That kind of instability, of constantly moving, of never living under your own roof or having enough to eat – that creates a tough environment for a child. These are some serious obstacles to learning. But I think our market is helping. It’s a small act with a big impact.

Much as I’d love to say the recession has started to fade, in fact, it’s the opposite. I’ve started to hear more stories of more people losing their homes, losing their jobs. So at least our market can serve as a relief from some of the financial pressure people are facing. Because of our market, many families can wait to go shopping until Thursday, the day after the Hamilton Family Market. We help their dollars stretch by letting parents see what groceries they can get here before they buy food at the store. It’s tough for people to buy fresh produce—it’s just too expensive—but thankfully, a lot of what we have at our family market is fresh fruits and vegetables.

Parent volunteers make sure the pantry is open to everyone in need.

“Our market really goes beyond food.”

Word has even gotten out to the rest of the town about our market, and every once in a while, someone who doesn’t have a student at the school will come by. I actually think that’s a good thing because we’re able to direct them to other services and organizations out in the community. So in that way, the market has really started to tie our school and community closer together.

Obviously, the problem doesn’t stop with the end of the school day. The market is not just to give out food, which they need to do well in school – it also shows the kids our commitment to them. It shows them that their school is their community, that we involve their families, and that we care about them. Now, we don’t have any fluffy set up. We’re in the school gym and we have the food set on tables, and there are lots of boxes on the stage. But we are still more than just a market. I always say, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” And I feel like our market really goes beyond food – we’re creating a community.

*Sally elected not to have her photo included – photo is of a different parent volunteer at the Hamilton Family Market.

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