Note: Originally published in the November, 2017 issue of the Washington Park Profile. Jaclyn Yelich and others reported afterwards that community response to this story was tremendous and resulted in significant cash contributions and thousands of pounds of donated goods.
As we go about our own lives, it's easy to believe every kid is well fed and living in a home well stocked with food and essentials. In South Denver, it could be very easy for a person to forget that, right across town, there are Denver residents living in USDA-classified food deserts.
According to the USDA, these neighborhoods are where “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population ... reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”
In the U.S., nearly 13 million children live in food-insecure households. As easy as it might be for the better-off of us to ignore the food insecurity other citizens face, at South High School, in the very heart of South Denver, there are roughly 100 students a week depending on a food bank located at the back of the school. According to its founder Jaclyn Yelich, this food bank supplies 1,200 to 1,800 pounds of food a week to students in need.
“We had a student recently whose father had to come for all the food she wanted to bring home but couldn’t,” Yelich said in a recent interview. “She was very distraught, but her father was able to come and pick up the extra food; clearly food and hunger is an issue at their house.”
Yelich and her team of volunteers often go the extra mile for these students. They conduct community outreach to ensure the food bank is well supplied, when specific supplies are low they shop for the food bank and they sometimes drive kids home themselves when those kids can't manage the commute home on the bus carrying food and books.
Yelich and her husband, Greg Thielen, worked with the school to launch the food bank in 2015. At that time, Yelich says, they were able to serve 25 or so kids a week. In 2016, that number jumped to about 90. Yelich says demand continues to grow as word spreads. And, one might assume most of the students making use of the food bank are refugee students—South is a school designated by Denver Public Schools (DPS) to serve these students—but that’s not always the case.
“Something fascinating about this food bank: we get not just refugee and immigrant kids here. We get kids born here, local kids,” Yelich says. “We get local kids who really want to help their community and family. That’s unique to a high school food bank. There’s a sense of community here—friends come together.”
According to food bank volunteer Sheila Black, mother of a South High junior and a former teacher herself, there’s been a concerted effort to ensure the bank is open to all, no questions asked. “We’ve worked hard to eliminate any of the stigma associated with coming,” she says. “Kids who are coming for a granola bar, kids who are coming for the weekend… I think some kids come to hang out and chat."
“I know for a fact last year there were kids who came with their friends because their friends didn’t want to come alone but they really needed the food,” Yelich adds. “They’d say ‘would you come with me?’ and they’ll sometimes be seen waiting by the door.
“Something fascinating about this food bank: we get not just refugee and immigrant kids here. We get kids born here, local kids. We get local kids who really want to help their community and family. That’s unique to a high school food bank. There’s a sense of community here—friends come together.”
As for what foods students have access to, the items run the gamut: fresh produce, meat and eggs, fresh bread and a wide array of pantry items—peanut butter, grains, cereals. The list is long. And, for now, Yelich says the pantry is decently supplied thanks to generous partnerships with organizations like Food for Thought (foodforthoughtdenver.org), a nonprofit trying to end weekend hunger for Denver’s kids, and Food Maven (foodmaven.co), a business tackling food supply spoilage. She also notes a long list of volunteers and generous checks that come in from time to time—things are improving steadily. Still, donations are always appreciated as there are urgent needs that arise unexpectedly. And, Yelich says, there is a current need most community members might not be thinking of as it is not usually associated with food pantries: warm clothing. Specifically the pantry needs warm hats, scarves, gloves and socks.
“We’re not just a food bank, we have a lot of personal-care items,” Yelich says. “Before the next big snow comes, we need warm clothing.”
“I think the great thing about this food bank is there’s really a thoughtful purchasing power as to what our families really need and really will eat,” says Dee Bonnell, food bank volunteer, secretary of the PTSA and, like Black, mother of a South junior. “We don’t have a lot of superfluous food that sits around; we’re really very mindful of our community and what it is they need. So that goes along with the personal care items as well. That’s really special.”
Speaking to what moves out of the food bank most quickly, Black, Bonnell and Yelich all say beans, lentils, rice—grains and legumes in general. Beyond that, the fresh vegetables, eggs and any available meat are greatly appreciated.
Thinking about their time at the Food Bank, Yelich and the volunteers say they all have learned a lot from organizations like Metro Caring regarding how to buy in quantity and repackage so as to spread the bounty.
As for other needs which might be hard for a donor to obtain, Yelich says halal meats specifically are in high demand. These meats are usually purchased by Yelich with funds donated from the community.
If you’re looking for a way to contribute beyond writing a check (though they are always welcome), Yelich says a holiday family wish-list program is in the works: locals will be able to adopt a family and shop their wish list.
If fulfilling a wish list isn’t for you but you want to confer with Jaclyn Yelich yourself, you can reach her at email@example.com. She reports she has a steady supply of volunteers but is happy to brain storm with anyone who wants to contribute.