Healthy School Pantry Boosts Wellness for Fort Worth ISD Families

Amid the backdrop of stark white cafeteria walls, a painted door stands out. Vibrant yellow bananas, red apples, and orange pumpkins decorate a door that would otherwise blend into the background. This is the door to Daggett Middle School’s new Healthy School Pantry. When opened, this door becomes a gateway to more than just a school closet; it means years to come of access to fresh foods for middle schoolers and their families.

On November 19, the Fort Worth ISD (FWISD) middle school hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the official opening of FWISD’s first Healthy School Pantry. This effort was a collaboration between Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB), the school district, the city of Fort Worth, and a community improvement agency called Blue Zones. Starting on November 19, students and their families can visit the school pantry when it opens once a month to take home bags of nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables.

Although TAFB supplies the food, this effort was pioneered by Blue Zones, a partner organization within Texas Health Resources and the city of Fort Worth. Their ongoing project in Fort Worth focuses on community-wide health and wellness by promoting healthier eating while increasing access to those foods.

When Blue Zones first began collaborating with Fort Worth in 2014, the city scored a staggering 186th place for national well-being. Just five years later, Fort Worth is now tied with Austin at 31st place, meaning the health and wellness of Fort Worth and its citizens have vastly improved. Matt Dufrene, Vice President of the Texas Health Resources Blue Zones project, said, “We’re really focusing on what may have otherwise been underserved areas of Fort Worth, and we’re also focusing on food access, security and affordability. And while those three things sometimes overlap, they are distinct.”

Daggett Middle School was chosen as the first location for a healthy school pantry in an effort to bridge the gap between community and school. Aligning with Blue Zones and TAFB’s missions, the middle school seeks to provide nutritious foods for students and families who may not have access to them otherwise. Principal Monica Garrett said, “Based on statistics, we know that in areas where there’s high poverty, they don’t have resources to be able to get fresh fruits and vegetables. So this is another way for us to bring that into the communities.”

The school pantry also hopes to provide its students and families with useful knowledge about healthiness, especially related to the food they receive. For now, families will receive worksheets of curriculum alongside their food that teach them about the ingredients and related recipes. The pantry organizers hope to expand on these learning opportunities in the future. “We eventually will want to also offer classes for our parents because there are going to be some fruits and vegetables that they don’t know how to cook. So we want to be able to educate them on this is how you cook this, this is what it tastes like, and it’s really simple,” Principal Garrett said.

FWISD is already looking forward to expand how the pantry can serve the community’s families because the district recognizes how instrumental proper nutrition is to success. FWISD Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner said, “Our goal is to prepare every student for success in college, career, and community leadership. And we think that by investing in [students] not only during the school day but beyond the school day, we can do that.”

The philosophy of TAFB supports that success in life starts with good health, and food is health at its core. TAFB Executive Director Bo Soderbergh said, “We at Tarrant Area Food Bank over the years have worked very hard to emphasize nutrition, especially nutrition for children. It’s one of the building blocks that will help kids not only grow but learn and retain what they’re learning and succeed in the future.”

Principal Garrett agreed that investing in students outside the school day by sending them home with nutritious food is highly beneficial to them. “When kids are eating more than Takis for lunch and dinner, then they’re getting the nutrients they need to make them stronger, to make them mentally more alert. Making well-being improvements takes a continual effort, and this is just one element of our concerted effort to improve the lives of our students physically, emotionally, and academically.”

After a brief but heartfelt opening ceremony, the families and guests who attended were eager to get a first look at the pantry. Inside, crates of produce lined the walls with a refrigerator and shelving units stocked to the brim. Principal Garrett estimated that when the shelves are fully stocked, at least 100 families will be able to receive food every month, which is nearly a fourth of her school’s population of 365 kids.

Even on the very first day, the food that was distributed made a substantial impact on families in the community. Lequeta Taylor, a mother of students in FWISD, was enthusiastic about the grand opening, stating the fresh food will be beneficial for her son who is a type two diabetic. “I like the food pantry. I love the school. I’m gonna talk to Ms. Garrett about trying to get one started at Briscoe Elementary School for the kids over there. I think this was a great idea. We need the fruit, the vegetables,” she said.

The night concluded with the community bonding over their shared effort to end hunger and promote wellness in their school. Overcome with gratitude, Principal Garrett closed the night by saying, “I am overjoyed. I am grateful to have each and every one of you here to make this happen. I only come up with a dream, and it’s everybody in this room that helps push this dream forward.”

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