Skyler Slaven grabbed granola bars and fruit cups from a small closet in an auditorium room at Ralston High School and tossed them into a plastic grocery bag.
Five long shelves that used to hold homecoming decorations are now fully stocked with hundreds of nonperishable items and toiletries — canned vegetables, toiletries, breakfast cereals, boxed pasta dinners and dessert mixes — and they’re all free for students.
Skyler’s single mom works as a nurse and has three teenage kids who are constantly devouring food.
“It helps a little bit,” said Skyler, 14, a freshman. Her mother “thought it was cool. She told me to get healthy food.”
The “R Pantry” opened in mid-January and is available to all students, who can shop after school on Fridays. Though the idea was sparked by one Ralston student, teens in three school clubs banded together to fill shelves, spread the word and request donations to help their fellow classmates.
Schools often hold canned food drives or collect money to donate to organizations and help needy families. Ralston’s pantry, however, is one of the few in the Omaha metro area that coordinate efforts within the school to provide aid to the district’s own students.
Nearly 45 percent of Ralston High students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; that’s the biggest percentage in the metro area after Omaha Public Schools high schools.
“If you’re hungry, you’re focusing on being hungry, not learning, which is what we’re at school to do,” said organizer Nate Johnson, 18. “If we can reduce that for a lot of people, that’s a good thing.”
The idea arose in December, and students from three clubs (National Honor Society, Student Council and FAIR: Fairness, Acceptance, Identity and Respect) asked for donations from fellow students, teachers, staff, parents and alumni.
One administrator brings 12 half-gallon jugs of milk every week. Hy-Vee Supermarket in Ralston gives six boxes of various food items each week. An alum in the Kansas City area sent a check to the school.
“I’ve had people tell me that it’s really heartwarming to see that their community is coming together to do something like this,” said sophomore and FAIR member Amarra Rysedorph, 16.
About 40 kids shopped on the first Friday the pantry was open, and 40 on the second Friday. Teachers monitor the store and help students locate food or gather items into plastic bags, along with recommending that students take at least one healthful meal.
“They were kind of, like, ‘Is this real? I don’t have to pay for this?’ ” said secondary French teacher Dené Oglesby. “It’s good for them to see that there’s some parts of reality that might not always be so harsh.”
Deodorant, bread, pasta, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter and cereal were popular choices.
Toiletries were a surprising need, teachers said. One student took a toothbrush — the first new one in three years. Another grabbed a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and excitedly told teachers the plan was to eat all weekend.
Ralston is not alone in helping to provide groceries to students.
Lincoln North Star High School holds an open market in the hallways once a month.
In a partnership with the Lincoln Food Bank, students, families and teachers can choose fruits, vegetables and canned food. The market is in its fifth year and helps about 130 people per month, representing anywhere from 500 to 700 family members, Principal Vann Price said.
“There’s no stigma. … I haven’t noticed that students are making fun of anyone,” Price said. “It’s my hope that it will continue for as long as it possibly can, because it’s been a very positive thing in our building.”
Westside Community Schools have had a food and toiletry pantry for more than 20 years and it is open to any family in the district. The 300-square-foot pantry is located near Westside High School and each month serves about 50 families, which typically shop every two weeks.
Students hold food drives to collect items for the pantry while teachers and administrators can give a few dollars on certain days to wear jeans.
Within OPS, schools work with outside organizations to provide services to kids.
The Food Bank for the Heartland helps 42 OPS schools — nearly half the district — by giving students backpacks full of food for the weekend.
At Field Club Elementary, nonprofit Completely Kids and the food bank help 188 kids with meals.
“It’s about networking, being connected to where we can find the most appropriate help based on the needs,” said Principal Barbara Wild.
The Ralston pantry could extend hours or offer clothing in the future, and students might make reusable bags out of T-shirts that R Pantry shoppers can use.
The students who organized the pantry said it’s important to help those in their own school who are struggling to be food secure.
“It will unify us,” said Shekinah Kiagiri, 18. “I think we’re all setting our differences apart to help a greater cause.”
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An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Skyler as a male.