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Rich Township 227 food pantry helps south suburban families overcome food insecurity

The SouthtownStar - 12/4/2023

Dec. 4—During the COVID-19 pandemic, Betsy Williams said she saw firsthand how food insecurity affected families in Rich Township High School District 227, as cars pulled up outside the district's schools in Olympia Fields and Richton Park for curbside delivery of meals.

The district had, over the years, prepared packaged meals for families during holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and could pull together donations of food for families in crisis at other times of the year, said Williams, the district's director of food services.

"I wanted to get something more sustainable that could help provide food throughout the year," she said.

Through a collaboration with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies items to Chicago-area food pantries, the district recently opened a food pantry inside the field house at its Fine Arts and Communications campus at 5000 Sauk Trail in Richton Park.

Since opening about two weeks ago, more than 100 families have been served, according to District 227 Superintendent Johnnie Thomas.

Along with a large selection of canned goods and other nonperishable food, the pantry is able to stock fresh and frozen items, including produce, fruit, eggs, milk, tilapia, catfish, turkey and chicken drumsticks, Williams said.

Along with food, the pantry stocks items such as toilet paper, toothpaste and toothbrushes, Williams said.

Families can register for the pantry at the district's website, and they can place orders for food that will be bagged by students and brought out to their car, Thomas said.

Families will also receive a card from the Greater Chicago Food Depository that allows them access to other pantries the depository serves, such as Rich Township's food pantry.

Williams said that District 227 is so far the only school district in the south suburbs to partner with the food depository to operate a pantry.

The idea started with a food pantry the district opened at the Richton Park campus, along with laundry facilities, for homeless students, Thomas said.

"If a kid comes to school hungry they are not necessarily focused on learning," he said.

Williams came to Thomas with the idea of expanding the pantry to include not just students but families in the district.

"It was a dream of hers to help the community with families not having enough food," Thomas said.

At the pantry's recent grand opening, Dot Foods in University Park also presented the district with a check for $7,500, which Williams said can be used to expand the pantry's capacity by bringing in a second freezer for food storage.

She said during the pandemic, families received additional outside stimulus help to pay for things such as food, but that "those COVID supports are no longer there" and, coupled with inflation for food prices, "we're still seeing a great need."

mnolan@tribpub.com

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