Thirty bags of Thanksgiving food, packed by volunteer Beth Bentley, went home with Geneva Heights Elementary students. Volunteers pack bags every Wednesday to send home with students who are at risk of going hungry.

Story by Maggie Klimuszko and Kennedy Hayes

A year-old “peace pantry” has become an essential part of students’ lives at Geneva Heights Elementary School, where about 30 packs of food are distributed each Friday. As Thanksgiving approaches, the pantry’s reputation for dependability becomes even more apparent.

“We try to give a bigger pack if we know the students have off for a long weekend or holiday,” says Michele Yates, coordinator of the Geneva Heights Peace Pantry, which opened in 2018 based on the success of a similar pantry at Woodrow Wilson High School.

Packs of food vary depending on the pantry’s stock, but all are guaranteed to have one full meal consisting of a protein, a vegetable and a side like rice or pasta, along with a variety of additional snacks, such as peanut butter, bars and fruit.

This year’s Thanksgiving bags, packed by volunteer Beth Bentley, include stuffing, cranberry, turkey gravy, peanut butter, soup, bread rolls, chicken breasts, green beans, ramen noodles, Jell-O, oatmeal and an oven pan.

“It is not very hard, and it does not take a lot of time,” says Bentley, who recently retired. “But, you know, I feel like it makes some difference.”

Geneva Heights Peace Pantry Coordinator Michele Yates, right, and volunteer Jenn Dawkins.

The pantry opened last year when the Pre-Geneva Association, an organization for families whose children will someday attend Geneva Heights, was looking for ways to connect with the school. It relies on donations, receiving support from school functions, community events and local businesses, groups and sports teams that conduct food drives and help raise money.

“Most of our donations come through our school community,” says volunteer Jenn Dawkins. “Local businesses and foundations will do food drives even if they don’t have any real affiliation to the school.”

About half of the students that receive packs from the Geneva Peace Pantry live in nearby transitional housing provided by Interfaith Family Services, while others are identified by the school through different channels.

“We don’t even know who the students actually are,” Yates says.