Junior Crystal Duong stocks a food cabinet at Clover Hill High School. Justin Vaughan photo
Margaret Flanagan has taught English at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County for almost 30 years, and during that time, she has always bought supplies for students. For the past 12 years, though, she has bought food as well, trying to stave off the tide of hunger that many of her school's students are facing.
"The last five years have been the worst," she says. According to the hunger-relief charity Feeding America, in 2010, 48.8 million Americans — 32.6 million adults and 16.2 million children — lived in food-insecure households, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to food.
Flanagan walks into an empty classroom and opens a metal cabinet where Sean O'Hare, once a Clover Hill student and now a coach and teacher for the Cavaliers, keeps jars of jelly and peanut butter. Some, their lids askew, share shelf space with loaves of bread and plastic knives, obviously having been hastily used to make sandwiches. Flanagan shrugs her shoulders. "What are you going to do?" she says. "They're boys.
"It's not unusual to see a boy with two sandwiches in each hand eating them between classes," Flanagan says. She walks into her own classroom and opens a second cabinet where neat stacks of juice and small containers of microwaveable food reside, another safe haven where students come, knowing they'll always find something to eat.
"Judy Bowman, a math teacher who originally came to me for snacks so her students could eat before they took the SOLs, started helping me," Flanagan continues. "Before we knew it, students were coming and saying, ‘I hear you have food.' "
The junior class at Clover Hill collected money last year to help stock Flanagan's cabinet. Bowman used it to buy juice and single-serving meals, things that could be microwaved and eaten quickly. Other teachers often leave food underneath Flanagan's desk. The school's Parent Teacher Student Association got wind of the need and now sends supplies periodically, spurring an anonymous donor to leave a new microwave at the school office.
Clover Hill's Interact, a teen service club sponsored by the Brandermill Rotary Club, decided to meet the problem head on, something it has shied away from doing until this year, for fear of embarrassing fellow students. Rebekah Amato, a Clover Hill government teacher and club sponsor, spoke of the dire situation at a recent club meeting, and after hearing of the urgent need, Crystal Duong, a junior at Clover Hill and Interact's president, says, "We were shocked to learn that there was such an increased need, and it bothered us to think that we might be sitting right beside hungry students and not even know it. We wanted to help any way we could." The club's members jumped in and started raising money.
"This school is not an exception," Amato points out. "When I was substituting in a Chesterfield County seventh-grade [class], the class had a pizza party. One child wrapped his slice in a napkin. Later, he asked if he could have another. The teacher I was working with said, ‘You didn't even eat the first one. Why should I give you a second?' He said, ‘I'd like to save my pizza, since I got a free lunch today. My sister and I don't have anything to eat tonight, so I want to take something home to her.' He got all the leftovers. Sometimes the kids are too embarrassed to say anything, and it's heartbreaking for the teachers because we can't afford to feed so many of them on our salaries."
Some students qualify for free lunches, but it can be hard for teenagers to overcome their angst and accept them. Also, parents may not fill out applications properly, or they may be just above the income level necessary to qualify.
There's another serious need as well.
"Some of our homeless students float around different hotels and can't wash their clothes frequently," Amato says. "A counselor here added clothes, especially new socks, underwear and jeans, to the wish list for school supplies."
Interact decided to raise funds by selling a T-shirt, with "Cavaliers Care" stenciled on the front and "Be Kind" on the back. For every $10 shirt sold, $2 will be raised for the club's cause.
"We're hoping to eventually start a clothes closet, but sizes are a problem," Amato adds. "We really need monetary donations, but if people donate new socks and underwear, or even used jeans — just as long as they're nice — that would be helpful. Interact's goal is to help every student in need right now, with the eventual goal of forming a clothes closet, something like Margaret and Judy have done with the food."
"The part that I think is the most upsetting is that this is the United States of America," Flanagan says. "I think about that when students are so hungry that they walk right into my room during class. I just keep talking to my students and go to the back and get some food. Other students will hang outside my door or come privately, bringing their bookbags to camouflage the food. It just depends on the child."
The "Cavaliers Care" T-shirt can be ordered for $10 by emailing email@example.com.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.