I spent fifteen years teaching art in school districts that fell under the “high-poverty” umbrella as defined by the number of students who qualified for free or reduced meal prices. In that time, I realized that while the school could provide students with breakfast and lunch, there were still nearly 20 hours each day that many students went without food. There was no after-school snack, no dinner before bed. Some kids were going without food from 11:30 a.m. until school breakfast was served the next morning at 7:30. If it was a weekend, well, you do the math! When I heard rumors of a Conway school teacher who started a food pantry in her classroom, I knew I had to investigate. In one and a half school years, Crystal Certain’s Certain Little Free Class Pantry has provided a much-needed service to countless students in her art classroom and the entire Conway school district.
Art teachers often have a special bond with their students. The laid back, project-based classroom of an art teacher is designed to encourage creativity and problem-solving. By nature, it is also extremely therapeutic. Class time often feels more like quality family-time where learning seems to happen before you even realize it. The environment is sometimes lighthearted with a friendly banter amongst the students and the teacher. Sometimes a student needs that time to shut out the world, and sometimes it becomes the one place where he/she can let it all out. Many days my job was limited to topics like composition, the elements, and principles of art and portfolio reviews. There were also many days that lesson plans were tossed and the discussion settled around issues like suicide, depression, sexuality, teen pregnancy, absentee parents, food insecurity and fear over what life would be like when high school was over. Crystal Certain’s art classroom is no different.
“There’s just something about being the art teacher that makes kids want to tell me their struggles. A few opened up to me [about food insecurity], and it made me start to wonder how many aren’t telling me. Most teachers have a drawer of snacks or other things kids need. It creates this sort of invisible safety net. I wanted to take it to the next level.”
Children and families in Arkansas face one of the nation’s highest risks of food insecurity and one out of every four kids may not know where their next meal is coming from. While many people may be shocked to learn that students in the Conway school district face hunger issues, Certain knows that food insecurity is a daily struggle for many of her students. And sadly, that need doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
“Food insecurity doesn’t have a specific face. Anyone can come from it, and hangry kids don’t learn well.”
Certain put action behind her concerns and decided to create a shelf in her classroom where she stocked things like PopTarts, granola bars and other grab-and-go snacks. The food was made available to anyone who needed it, and Certain wasn’t surprised to see it disappear almost faster than she could get it stocked. So one shelf became two, and two became four, and before she knew it, Certain’s classroom closet was converted into a full-fledged food pantry.
In the beginning, Certain provided much of the food herself. As the Certain Little Free Class Pantry grew, so grew the need to seek donations to make sure students never went hungry because the pantry was bare. Her students set up a Facebook page for the pantry, and word about it spread around town. Soon local businesses were making donations and setting up food drives for the pantry. A local Boy Scout troop makes regular donations, and the Facebook page has brought in individual contributions from as far as Canada and the UK.
“Not only do our kids benefit, but we also have kids who regularly donate. There is joy and pride that comes with helping a fellow student. This generation has an unmatched capacity for generosity and understanding. We have really good kids.”
I asked Certain if she was ever afraid of kids abusing the open door policy of the pantry.
“Because anyone can come, it makes it okay for everyone. I never ask any questions. And honestly, a kid that may not fall under the “food insecure” label that happened to forget their lunch that day needs access to the pantry just as much as any other kid.
Plus, if one of the really popular kids, one that’s looked up to by a lot of students, makes it a point to come in and get some things now and then it takes away the stigma for those who need it. And the kids with a desperate need…they are always afraid to take “too much.” They don’t want someone else to go hungry either.”
The Certain Little Free Class Pantry is well into its second year and continues to grow, and the high school is now dotted with several micro-pantries so the needs of students can be more easily met. Students can pick up food items and even personal hygiene items for themselves and their family members. Certain says they try to have a mix of grab-and-go items along with things that students can take home and cook as a meal.
Weekends and holidays are popular times for the pantry, and they are still working to get items restocked following the Christmas holiday. PopTarts, crackers, deodorant, shampoo and feminine products seem to be the items that disappear first. Canned goods and things like microwavable pastries and other convenience meals are also popular.
“I genuinely hope that one day there is no longer a need for [the Certain Little Free Class Pantry]. But until then, we will keep running it, and we will let it grow as big as it needs to.”
You can help the Certain Little Free Class Pantry in several different ways. Monetary donations can be dropped off in the school office or mailed to Conway High School, 2300 Prince Street, Conway, AR, 72034 Attn: Class Pantry (checks should be made out to Conway High School with Class Pantry in the memo line). Donations can be dropped off to the box in the main office from 7:30 to 4:00 on school days or you can visit the Certain Little Free Class Pantry Amazon Wish List to have donations sent directly to the school.
You can also help spread the word about the pantry by liking and sharing their Facebook page. If you would like to get your friends or a community group involved or if you are interested in starting a similar program in your local community, send Crystal Certain a DM through their Facebook page.