Five years ago, a mobile food pantry started delivering fresh, healthy food to parents at one elementary school in Hollywood. Then, it went to three.
Now, the nonprofit Mobile School Pantry has expanded to delivering food to seven elementary schools across Broward County. The pantry travels to schools that are located in areas that lack easy access to grocery stores - areas called food deserts.
The non-profit's founder, Zeina Zein-Wolland, talked about the program with WLRN earlier this month outside a distribution day at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Montessori Academy in Lauderhill.
WLRN: What were the needs that you were seeing that other food banks were not addressing?
Zein-Wolland: Food is like a...it's a school supply. You know, they don't eat pens, they don't need paper. They need food. Families are able to come straight to their school when they're already there. They don't have to drive that extra mile to get to a food pantry, or to get to a store. They can just come straight to their school where they're picking up their child, and they can also shop at the same time and take home food with them that they wouldn't have otherwise gotten.
We want to get to the areas of need that are the greatest. So we only take 90 percent or more, free/reduced breakfast and lunch schools. That way you are identifying that 90 percent need help, if not more. It's open then to the whole school, to their cafeteria workers, to the bus driver at the school.
What is a food desert? What does that look like?
When you don't have a vehicle and there is a grocery store that's four or five miles away from you - that's a food desert. You don't have easy access. You actually have to get on multiple buses to get to that grocery store, and in most cases you're shopping at that Kwik Stop.
You're just not going to waste your time to go further. You might not have enough gas to get you there. You might not have enough money to buy that bus pass. You might not have that friend that's going to drive you to get food.
Mobile School Pantry focuses mainly on produce. You know, that that's where the cost is. Bag of grapes, blueberries... these are the things that these families aren't able to have access to...Those apples, the oranges, the bananas, the grapes. Those are the things you're not going to find that a Kwik Stop. But we do do dry goods as well, and staples just like any other food pantry.
Where does the food that you donate come from?
A lot of our food items come from Pompano Farm Share - they're a food bank and they're wonderful. And the [Pompano State Farmer's Market] up in Pompano. We get items from Sun City Produce when we do food recovery from them. And, you know food recovery is awesome. Let's save food that's actually out there. It could be a damaged box, it could be, you know, half the box may not look so pretty.
Students at Fort Lauderdale High School came out. And when they see a box of lemons and they're spoiled, they're kind of like, 'do these go in the garbage?' and I was telling them, you know out of this box of 100 lemons there maybe 20 to 30 bad ones, but we can save the rest of these lemons to give to people who are in need.
Once families came and shopped, and they saw that all the lemons had gone, they're like, 'wow we can't believe we were about to throw away that whole box of lemons!' We were able to rescue them, and actually people were so excited to get lemons, because they're a very expensive item.
Read More: How Food Insecurity May Harm 5-Year-Olds
What happens at an elementary school on a mobile pantry day?
Usually, you know, we're a one day shop and set up and break down. We start putting tablecloths that look like picnic table cloths on the tables. We want to get food out with integrity and dignity.
When we first started we would start at 1:30 to 3:30 and it gives parents the opportunity before they pick up their child to shop, or to bring their child to shop with them.
My favorite part is seeing the kids come in and shop, and choosing their foods. They get to come into the pantry and they look up at mom and they're like, 'hey mom can I take this?' Their mother doesn't have to tell them 'no,' because they actually get to take it.
In 2017 you begin a pilot program with the Children's Services Council of Broward County and the South Florida Hunger Coalition. They recently renewed their grant commitments to help expand again. What are you able to do now, that you weren't before?
Last year we were at three schools, and with the extra funding from Children's Services Council, we're going to be at seven schools this year - at five sites. So, we're doing some double schools at one site. We have never been able to add on those extra schools. I mean we've jumped from, you know, 300 families to serving 1,000 families a month.
The more Mobile School Pantry grows, it's all about awareness. If people just know what we're doing, they can come and help us with our mission of feeding our community. And I truly believe that we're going to get to every school in Broward County one day, and Miami Dade and Palm Beach. And you know, the more people who join forces with us, the more families we could feed.
Find a map of food deserts (as of 2015) the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has identified across the country, here.
Below, use the map to explore where Mobile Food Pantry currently holds food distribution days.