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Helping Hands Food Pantry

Food PantryIt’s a Friday afternoon and a student’s family is heading into the weekend without enough food. Even worse, the State College Food Bank has closed.


In the past, this scenario would have left the State College Area School District social work team with little recourse for helping the family. But now, thanks to the latest partnership between the district and the food bank, nobody would have to go hungry.


Inside the district’s Panorama Village Administrative Center, the new Helping Hands Pantry fills a room with shelves of packaged and canned goods as well as personal hygiene items and household cleaning supplies — all readily available for timely assistance. Cindy Sergeon-Smith, the district’s home school visitor, and her colleague, district social worker Morgan Bechdel, can fill a bag quickly and deliver it to a family in need.


The pantry does not have regular hours. Rather, Sergeon-Smith and Bechdel distribute items as needed, based on family assessments.


“This is an emergency food pantry to give families immediate assistance, and then our goal as a social work team is to get them to utilize the food bank for further help,” Sergeon-Smith said.


Open since October, the SCASD site is the first installment of the food bank’s school pantry experimental program. State College Food Bank Executive Director Allayn Beck said she hopes the pantry, by first providing immediate help and then connecting families to the food bank, removes barriers to seeking assistance.


Cindy Sergeon, Allayn Beck and Morgan Bechdel. “The State College Food Bank has always been looking at ways to more effectively reach families and cut down the stigma of coming to the food bank and using our pantry,” Beck said. “So the school district just seems like a natural place to start because we know that teachers and guidance counselors, principals and administrators in the school district are already trusted people in families’ lives. So if they’re hearing this information from the school district, they’re likely, hopefully, to come to our food bank if they’re in need.”


Assistance through the pantry also may open the door to other referrals once the district social work team gets to know a family through home visits, Bechdel said. “It creates that bridge from the school district to other networks,” she said.


While the pantry is new, the district’s ties to the food bank date to before the COVID-19 pandemic when Beck made it possible for Sergeon-Smith to refer families to the food bank directly instead of via a social service agency. In 2020, Sergeon-Smith, Bechdel and a host of district volunteers organized the Stuff the Bus initiative to fill a school bus with donations for the food bank.


Eventually, the relationship turned a long-standing dream into reality.


“I’ve always wanted a food bank in our district because as a homeless liaison, I kept hearing about all these other school district having them,” Sergeon-Smith said. “Then Allayn approached us about having a pantry here, and I felt very honored that she chose our school district.”


The close ties come into play when a family needs more emergency relief than the pantry can provide in a pinch.


Morgan Bechtel“We can call Allayn and her staff in the blink of an eye and say, ‘We just met a family that needs food. We’re going out there this afternoon. Can you pack food?’ And they will have it for us in an hour,” Sergeon-Smith said. “We weren’t able to do that in the past.”


Not only families could benefit from the new connection. District employees in need also could receive pantry provisions for home through contacting Sergeon-Smith’s office. Elementary teachers could turn to the pantry for help providing snacks.


Recognizing that hungry students may have more difficulty in class, Sergeon-Smith and Bechdel see the panty providing critical support for learning — in keeping with their efforts to assist district families. Recently, they partnered with State High students and teachers to hold the school’s first school-wide drive to raise awareness of homelessness and collect donated clothes and goods for families. SCASD and local food banks also worked together to provide Thanksgiving meals to 425 families.


“We’re meeting those basic needs; that’s what we really do from this office,” Sergeon-Smith said. “By building partnerships with people like Allayn and the food bank, we’re actually serving our students in a better way than we ever have from this office.”


By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark