Woodrow Wilson High School biology teacher Brook Varner poses for a photograph January 7, 2016 in her classroom pantry. Varner created a pantry in her classroom when she notice some students only ate while at school. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

A Woodrow Wilson High School teacher feeds her students’ bodies and brains

When you’re hungry, it’s difficult to focus on anything but filling that void and quieting that growl, and sadly, one out of four kids in Dallas can’t say for sure he’ll be having dinner on any given night. However, right here in our own neighborhood, a Woodrow teacher has taken steps to fill that most basic need for many of her students.

Brook Varner is a science teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School. She’s that cool teacher, the one every school has who doesn’t mind at all if students hang out in her room every day after school as they wait for rides. In the process, some students confide to her that there’s no food at their homes.

At first, Varner kept her room stocked up, out of her own pocket, with ramen noodles and peanut butter crackers. But soon Varner realized the need was greater than her own pocketbook and enlisted the help of equally concerned parents. Woodrow parents Nancy Wilson and Jennifer Blumenstock got busy: Wilson visited another school’s pantry and took notes; Blumenstock applied her organizational skills. Varner emptied out a large storage closet attached to her classroom, stocking the shelves with a few cans and bags of rice.

And so was born the Woodrow Peace Pantry. Now in its second year, it is bursting with cans of beans, soup, chili and tuna; packages of pasta and rice; basic hygiene products; gently used uniforms and shoes.

“Having a pantry at school allows students to take the food directly from the school to their home,” Varner explains. “This saves them time and energy. When a family is temporarily insecure, knowing how and where to access resources can take time that they may not have. Finding a job or focusing on school can be the top priority without having to worry about the next meal.”

Most students who use the pantry are referred by friends, rather than teachers, a system Varner encourages. “It helps them to feel comfortable and welcome.” Parents might be between jobs or struggling to pay rapidly increasing rents occurring in the neighborhood.

At the beginning, it was trial and error. “There was definitely a learning curve,” Varner laughs. If you have teenagers, you know they’re always on the prowl for a snack, and when word spread that Varner had food in her closet, the students swarmed. Gradually, though, students understood that the pantry was for the needy, and with that understanding came a desire to help.

Brook values her student helpers, all of whom have shown up voluntarily just to be involved. They sort and stock donations, and they even act as informal, keeping-it-honest screeners. At times, students who have plenty of food at home have come by the pantry. The students know one another and their situations better than any teacher could, and a few times the student helpers have had to turn some away students with a gentle admonishment that “you know this is just for the truly needy,” not for the kid who simply forgot to pack a snack that day.

Not only do the student volunteers learn a compassionate viewpoint, but they also pick up life skills in the process. “The pantry is teaching leadership skills and collaboration by uniting the students, parents and teachers with one goal: that every student has what he or she needs to be successful in the classroom so they can go to college,” she said.

The Woodrow community has embraced the pantry. Teachers and feeder-pattern schools such as Lakewood and Stonewall have donated groceries and gift cards, as well as new backpacks. The Woodrow Interact Club, a service organization, conducted a food drive, and the school’s Aerospace Engineering students collected more than 1,000 items. Woodrow basketball and football teams help keep the pantry clean.

The neighborhood, too, is hearing more about the pantry and showing support. Woodrow parent Kippy Clapp coordinated with Brownie Troop #7721 in a recent food drive. And students from Incarnation Academy donated 250 backpacks filled with food and essentials. The backpacks were handed out just before Thanksgiving to carry students and their families through the holiday.

Though she is quick to deflect any recognition, it was Varner’s desire to help that ultimately led to the establishment of the pantry. “This is something I care deeply about,” she reflects. More than anything, she hopes to inspire others. “The ultimate goal would be to see pantries established at other Dallas schools. Gather together, develop a plan that works best for your school or neighborhood and get to work.”