The Care Closet food pantry at Berkmar High School in Lilburn, Ga., part of the Gwinnett County School District, is a critical resource for economically disadvantaged students. While it serves only a few dozen of the 3,200 students enrolled in the school, they are students that really need the assistance, says Emily Santowski, a special ed teacher at the school who is also a Care Closet co-sponsor.
“It’s for students in need who, studies have shown can increase their test scores if they are able to get food so they aren’t going hungry,” she says, noting that while such students can get meals while at school, they and their families are on their own the rest of the time, and that sometimes means going without adequate nourishment.
Like most pantries that depend on volunteer labor and donations, Care Closet has to cope with challenges related to tracking inventory, scheduling replenishment deliveries and gauging relative demand for different products so that what is stocked meets what is actually needed. In those areas, Care Closet now has a high-tech advantage, a proprietary POS app called Verii from micro market technology firm 365 Retail Markets and an inventory management system from technology firm Lightspeed Automation. Both companies donated their products and services to the Care Closet project.
Care Closet had been operating for about a year before the high-tech system was installed last September, and it has made a big difference in streamlining inventory tracking.
The automated system uses bar codes to scan each item that is taken so the pantry knows not only what has to be restocked and when but also the relative velocity at which different products are depleted. For instance, while Care Closet stocks a wide variety of non-perishable foodstuffs (there is no refrigeration) such as boxed and canned products, it found that one of the most popular items is laundry detergent, which along with hygiene products can’t be purchased with food stamps, so needy families often have to do without.
Students “advocate for themselves” to be eligible for access to Care Closet but there is little problem with misuse. “The kids who use it are truly in need,” Santowski says.
The stock and funding for Care Closet come from a variety of private sources, from clubs, teachers, individuals in the community and even a local temple. Students who patronize the pantry are not restricted in what they take, and often it is enough to feed not just themselves but their families.
Beyond assisting students and families in need, Care Closet has become a community building venture for the school, with students, teachers and staff all lending a hand in operating, stocking and replenishing the pantry. It is also a space where some special needs students can get vocational experience.
“It has been a very nice experience to see the school grow in awareness and come together to make this happen,” Santowski says.
Editor’s note: While the child nutrition department isn’t involved in the Care Closet, we’ve included this story on FM to provide insights into technology available in managing pantries as more districts and child nutrition departments are adding these programs.