COEUR d'ALENE — Four 11-year-old girls, all fifth-graders at Borah Elementary School, spent their lunch hour Wednesday helping unload the first food delivery to the Borah Elementary Food Pantry at Coeur d'Alene Assembly Church.
Several members of the partnership that made the food pantry possible arrived for the "grand opening." The partners include Borah Elementary, the Assembly Church, University of Idaho and Second Harvest Food Bank.
All were excited at the arrival of the food and the official opening, which happens today from 2:30-4 p.m., but the most excitement came from the four young women who head the student council at Borah. Each said they were excited at the prospect of helping those in need for their first community outreach project as the first student council at Borah Elementary.
"It just makes your heart feel really special when you see the smiles on their faces and you see that they are getting good food and getting taken care of," said Ashlynn Wild, president of the student council.
The other three student council members include Athena Williams as vice president, Kendell Bentley as secretary and Naomi Fraley as treasurer. The girls will help with the food pantry each week by unloading, organizing the food and recording temperatures of the refrigerator and freezer.
"I was really excited to come here, and like (Ashlynn) said, the smiles on their faces give you kind of a warm feeling," Athena said.
"It's really an honor to be here," Athena and Kendall said simultaneously.
Rick Kline, Borah Elementary principal, said about 90-91 percent of the students at Borah receive free or reduced lunch. He said the school offers free breakfast and lunch and snacks during any of the school programs held before or after school. About 50 to 60 kids take home food once a week as part of the Coeur d'Alene Backpack Program, where food is supplied by Second Harvest to kids from low-income families to take home for weekend meals.
"But, there is just a bigger need out there, so we are trying to meet that need of our parents and students and community," Kline said.
He said the partnership with the church, UI and Second Harvest has been critical to bringing the food pantry together. He said the partnership began with the school's "Spring Fling," when they all came together in May to provide information and resources to parents to keep kids busy over the summer. Second Harvest provided boxes of food and Kline said the parents were leaving the playground of the school with "big smiles on their faces." He said that was when they realized there was a bigger need than just the 50 to 60 backpacks they were sending home.
Nate Day, student life pastor for Coeur d'Alene Assembly Church, said the church and the school often work together to help the kids and the community since the church is located right across the street from Borah.
"We like to find common ground," Day said. "We both want great communities, so our role is to come in alongside (the school) and help them create a great community — and to serve with no strings attached."
The food pantry will not only provide food to low-income families, but the partners aim to provide healthy food, which is where Shelly Johnson, director of the Eat Smart Idaho program at UI, comes in. She said helping with projects like the food pantry is exciting because rather than just telling people they need to eat healthier, they can provide access to healthier food for those families.
Julie Humphreys, community relations manager for Second Harvest, said 50 percent of the food they distribute is fruits and vegetables. When other items such as milk, cheese and meat are considered, the number of fresh items they deliver is about 70 percent. In addition to the healthier choices, Johnson said she will be holding nutrition classes and providing meal plans for patrons of the food pantry.
"Obesity rates are on the rise," Johnson said. "It's something we see often in families that are struggling — that overweight and obesity is a little bit higher because the foods that they are eating aren't always the healthiest and are highly-processed types of foods, not a lot of fruits and vegetables."
Dan Christ, lead pastor at Coeur d'Alene Assembly, said the church has provided a small community food bank for at least 20 years on an "as-needed" basis, keeping food on hand to be picked up by church or community members as needed.
He called Second Harvest about six months ago, he said, asking if the church could become a Second Harvest Food Bank, but was told they didn't serve enough people. In January, Kline heard Second Harvest wanted to come to Coeur d'Alene and asked Christ if he wanted to work together on opening a pantry — Christ, of course, said yes.
"We've been a partner with our schools for over 15 years," he said, referring to Borah and Bryan Elementary. "So to be able to do the food pantry is a natural progression of the relationship we already had. Immediately we were able to connect with U of I and that just made us more excited because we knew that we were not just giving out food, but that we are really going to be able to equip families in our neighborhood."
He said when the food pantry is open, it is open to the public.
"We are not exclusively serving families or students, it's just this neighborhood has been identified as high-need," Christ said. "We want people to come in."
The girls unloaded box after box of food — apples, milk, lentils, Jenny-O turkey sausage, bread, eggs, juice and more. Terah Chance, food pantry manager, joked that the church already needed a bigger pantry. The large, double-door refrigerator purchased and donated by Idaho Dairy Council was filling up fast. Chance said Union Gospel Mission in Coeur d'Alene offered to store overflow.
Coeur d'Alene School District Superintendent Matt Handelman said he was surprised at how quickly the food pantry had come together. The church had remodeled a room across the hall from where the food is stored as a "family room." Christ said they re-painted the room and added a new carpet and furniture.
Handelman said in addition to the kids being excited and families receiving help, he is impressed with how everyone came together to create a family-friendly space "nicer than my living room."
"It's treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve and it's wonderful," Handelman said.
The pantry is open 2:30-4 p.m. Thursdays at Coeur d'Alene Assembly Church, located at 2200 N. Seventh St.
Ashlynn Wild, left, Athena Williams, middle, and Naomi Fraley help stock the Coeur d'Alene Assembly Church Food Bank fridge with Yogurt on Wednesday.