2018-05-16 / Featured / Front Page

Feeding a need: A food pantry at Clover Hill fills a void

A teacher in a well-off district saw students going hungry – then, the community stepped in

Volunteer Ray Roberts plants lettuce starts at the Feed23112 community garden on a Saturday morning in April. Based at Clover Hill High School, Feed23112 is a nonprofit food pantry serving hungry families in central Chesterfield. KEVIN PRIDGEN Volunteer Ray Roberts plants lettuce starts at the Feed23112 community garden on a Saturday morning in April. Based at Clover Hill High School, Feed23112 is a nonprofit food pantry serving hungry families in central Chesterfield. KEVIN PRIDGEN The raised beds were prepared, and the seedlings had arrived at the empty garden site on Beulah Road. After a series of rain delays, on a recent sunny Saturday, the Feed23112 community garden was ready for planting.

Nan Johnson gave fellow volunteers Mary Lou Roberts and her son, Ray, a quick lesson in planting, showing the pair the planting and harvesting schedule she’d developed, along with the best way to start crops in one of the dozen 4-by-12-foot raised beds. The two nestled an assortment of tiny purple and green lettuces in 48 holes, while nearby, Roberts’ daughter, Jessie, turned the soil in another bed with a rake.

ASH DANIEL ASH DANIEL Johnson, an experienced home gardener, enjoys tending the community garden, now in its third year. “I gave up my home garden,” Johnson says. “This is so much better.” But according to Ann Marie Luhmann, organizer of the nonprofit Feed23112 food pantry, the one-acre garden on Beulah Road got off to a bit of a rough start. “We really didn’t know what we were doing. That first year, the rabbits and deer were the only ones who got fed,” Luhmann says. John Sager, another garden volunteer, agrees, “I’ve never seen fatter rabbits.”

Now, thanks to some new and improved fencing and those raised beds, the animals will be kept out and the produce harvested will be distributed through the pantry to local households in need. The garden and its volunteers are part of a mission that got its start in a high school classroom in the 1990s: to alleviate the hunger that often goes unnoticed in one of the county’s wealthier zip codes.

Feed23112, a nonprofit initiative to combat hunger, originated five years ago at Clover Hill High School, 13 miles from the community garden. Most county schools have programs that help struggling families during the holidays and in times of crisis. Clover Hill does that and more, providing breakfast and lunch on a regular basis to hungry students.

Ann Marie Luhmann, organizer of Feed23112, with volunteer John Sager at the nonprofit’s garden on Beulah Road during spring planting in April. ASH DANIEL Ann Marie Luhmann, organizer of Feed23112, with volunteer John Sager at the nonprofit’s garden on Beulah Road during spring planting in April. ASH DANIEL Twelfth-grade English teacher Margaret Flanagan says students have been coming to school hungry since she started teaching there 35 years ago. In 1990, Flanagan began keeping crackers and snacks in her classroom.

“Kids were asking if I had crackers, anything to eat. I’d keep some in my desk and when word got around, more kids came for breakfast. Other teachers would send kids to my room,” she says.

In recent years, both she and Clover Hill High principal Deborah Marks have noticed an increase in hungry students, including instances of kids stealing food from each other.

“When a child is melting down, nine times out of 10, when I ask them if they are hungry, they say they haven’t eaten since the night before,” Marks says. “Give them a protein bar and some water and things get better. You never know how kids come to school, or what they are leaving behind.”

Marks says some people find it hard to believe that there is such need in a school in the affluent Midlothian area. Clover Hill is one of three high schools in the 23112 zip code, with students coming from Swift Creek and Manchester Middle schools. Students live along the Hull Street corridor, which extends from Hicks and Belmont roads to the Swift Creek Reservoir. “We have million-dollar homes,” says Marks, “and we have about a dozen homeless students here right now.”

According to Chesterfield County Public Schools, 36 percent of students in the county are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; at Clover Hill, it’s 22 percent.

Realizing that hungry kids were coming from hungry homes, Marks felt there was more the school community could do to aid Flanagan’s efforts. In 2010, shortly after the new Clover Hill High opened off Genito Road, Flanagan appealed to the faculty for help in gathering food. Several student-run organizations, including the service-based BETA Club and the National Honor Society, responded by holding food drives, which still continue today. At the same time, Journey Christian Church was renting space at Clover Hill to hold their Sunday services, and in support of the students’ efforts, the church held two major food collections.

In 2012, as desk drawers and classroom closets were filled with donated goods, and an empty classroom that had been used for storage was reclaimed for academics, Marks turned to then-Parent Teacher-Student Organization president Luhmann for help organizing the donations.

This core group of Luhmann, Flanagan and Marks – along with Clover Hill District School Board representative Dianne Smith and local church and community representatives – worked on developing a solution to get the food where it was needed.

“We decided on a trailer,” Luhmann says, “so we could feed more children and families in the community when school was out.” To help the effort, Journey Christian Church emptied its storage trailer behind Clover Hill High and donated the unit to the nonprofit. The trailer opened as a pantry in 2013, welcoming visitors two Saturdays a month. To spread the word, Luhmann sent a mailer to individuals and communities in the 23112 zip code.

In the beginning, turnout to the pantry was slow but steady, with only about 10 families a week served during the first few weeks. Those families told others, Luhmann says, and that helped spread the word.

“Mrs. Flanagan let us know that this need existed,” Marks says. “Ann Marie [Luhmann] brought the players together.”

School Board member Smith adds, “Margaret [Flanagan] needed help to grow and sustain the program. It wasn’t one grade level, not one street in the community. Poverty doesn’t know a zip code – it lives everywhere.”

The pantry was a success, yet something was missing – something green.

“The pantry provides nonperishables, but they don’t have the best nutritional value,” explains Luhmann. She began picturing a solution: a community garden, worked by volunteers, to supplement those nonperishables with fresh produce.

“If you can incorporate fresh vegetables, you are providing a whole second piece of the puzzle,” she says. “People cut back on the fresh food when they don’t have much money. It’s too expensive and fresh food spoils fast. We can provide that and get them excited about it.”

Through a mutual friend, a woman named Annie May Gray heard about Luhmann’s garden idea. Sharing her vision, Gray donated five acres of land on her Beulah Road property to the effort, and the garden was founded in 2016. A volunteer pointed Luhmann toward Terry Lautzenheiser, a teacher and coordinator of the greenhouse and landscaping program at the Chesterfield Career and Technical Center on Courthouse Road, who came to the rescue during the garden’s first year when those hungry rabbits and deer struck.

“Terry and her students were instrumental in helping us with the garden,” says Luhmann of Lautzenheiser’s redesign and preparation of the garden beds, which currently occupy about an acre of Gray’s property.

Last year, the group harvested well over 500 pounds of produce for the pantry, according to volunteer John Sager. “We grew greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and carrots.” This year, he adds, they are working on improving the watering and harvesting schedule, with regular evenings in the garden when volunteers can share those tasks, for a community experience. And for the first time they are trying their hand at growing strawberries. As soon as the end of May, the lettuces they planted in April will be ready for harvesting and available at the trailer.

Luhmann is grateful for the many community connections they’ve made along the way. “We are very fortunate that we’ve partnered with different organizations, including the Girl Scouts, Journey Christian Church [and] Brandermill Church, who’ve help spread the word,” she says.

Those local church and community members regularly staff the pantry. Students from the school’s BETA club and National Honor Society help manage and organize the trailer, keeping up with food expiration dates and helping clients select their items. The pantry shelves were installed by students.

Clover Hill senior Rachel Williams has volunteered at the trailer for two years and sees many regulars: “We see the same 15 to 20 people every time the trailer is open.” Clients love the fresh produce from the garden, she says. “It is always the first to go.”

The Feed23112 pantry is open the first and third Saturday of every month, from 10 a.m. until noon. Luhmann says they average 20-30 visitors each time the trailer is open and it has been that way almost since the start. “It’s different people, but we have had some people who’ve been with us since the beginning.”

In order to use the pantry, participants must provide proof they live in 23112. On their first visit, they’re asked to fill out a card listing their contact information and any individuals for whom they are providing food. The information is necessary in case of a food recall, Luhmann explains, and it can help them contact clients when they get an influx of something they might need, like baby formula or diapers.

Still, the volunteers don’t ask many questions.

“It is hard enough to come and ask for help,” Luhmann says. “We don’t want to make it harder or embarrassing. We see all walks of life: injured, disabled, elderly whose social security doesn’t make it, people who’ve lost a spouse and that paycheck. There are lots of different reasons people come to the food pantry.”

A few times, the pantry has been close to running out of food. “In the beginning, we let people take whatever they wanted,” Luhmann says. “Now, there is a limit of 25 items per family.” During those lean times, monetary donations from individuals and community organizations enabled pantry organizers to grocery shop and restock the shelves.

“Summer is hard for us,” Luhmann says, “the kids are out of school and it is harder to collect food. We are always looking for volunteers and groups to run food drives.”  

Back at Clover Hill, Flanagan still feeds hungry students, but now the food she keeps on hand is donated through Feed23112. With the help of a volunteer, she continues to keep her room stocked with breakfast and lunch bags for kids in need, giving out 20- 30 a week. Flanagan doesn’t question the students who come to her classroom for breakfast or lunch. “I don’t need to know their name. Whoever comes to me for food gets it. I can’t imagine being hungry.” Additional bags of food are provided if a family needs help with weekend meals.

The pantry and garden have been successful in extending such efforts beyond the school walls into the surrounding community, but, Luhmann says, there’s still room to grow. “My goal is to feed 23112. I’d like to take care of my zip code, my neighbors, my friends,” she says. “Right now, I’m reaching out to the other schools in 23112. I’d like to get food pantries in all the schools to make sure kids get what they need.”

After that, Luhmann wants to take the program to the next level.

“I hope in the next year or two to get another zip code started,” she says. “The one thing you don’t want is for kids to be hungry.” ¦

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