On a sunny summer afternoon blanketed in a heatwave, dozens of families filed into Fountain Hill Elementary School in South Bethlehem to visit the school’s newest facility: a community food pantry.
Inside the space, which is directly accessible from the exterior of the school, walls were lined with staples such as canned vegetables, rice, beans and shelf-stable milk. Meat and fruit filled the freezer. A shelf stocked with donations held everything from bakery-fresh bread to boxed vegan macaroni and cheese. Outside, bins overflowing with fresh local produce lined tables dotting the sidewalk.
As families waited to enter, cheerful conversation flowed among adults, students and Paige Hoffman, community school coordinator at Fountain Hill Elementary.
The food pantry is a resource for students, families and members of the Fountain Hill community. Functioning similarly to a mini market, it is a choice pantry; guests select their food, with no requirements on items. Allocation is based on family size in an effort to make the pantry as equitable as possible. Individuals managing the pantry are mindful of the selections being made and have taken steps to ensure that the inventory includes culturally appropriate food.
The community schools initiative is a partnership among Lehigh University, the Bethlehem Area School District and the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley that seeks to eradicate barriers to success for students and families. As one element of the initiative, the Community Service Office at Lehigh is the lead partner at Fountain Hill Elementary.
Through the Backpack Buddies program, which has been in place at the school for approximately 18 years, food was sent home with students weekly. This helped food insecure families bridge gaps between children eating at school and home. When the pandemic closed schools nationwide in March 2020, Hoffman noted that a number of students and their families, as well as many Fountain Hill residents, faced increased food insecurity. Compounding the problem was the neighborhood’s location in a food desert, with few retail spots where families could purchase food affordably. In an effort to curb the issue, Hoffman began distributing meals to students weekly to replace the food students were not receiving while schools were shut down.
“With the closure of several local retail food stores, we knew that securing food would be a struggle in our neighborhood, so when the pandemic began, we handed out food," Hoffman said. "Even as the pandemic began to wind down, we predicted that food insecurity would continue to be high, and that has been true.”
Following internal discussions about increased food insecurity in the community, staff in Lehigh’s Community Service Office approached Second Harvest Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania with interest in partnering to open a food pantry at Fountain Hill Elementary. Second Harvest seemed like an ideal partner who could help keep shelves stocked with healthy food at no cost to local families in need.
Second Harvest agreed to partner–as long as a non-profit was leading the initiative. As a result, Fountain Hill Grocery Community Partnership was born, a small non-profit composed of representatives from Lehigh University, the City of Bethlehem, Fountain Hill Borough, and Cathedral Church of the Nativity (located in South Bethlehem). Chairing the non-profit is Richard Sause, Joseph T. Stuart Professor of Structural Engineering in Lehigh’s P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Center.
With Cathedral Church of the Nativity taking the lead, Fountain Hill Grocery Community Partnership raised funds to build a pantry room at the school, raising more than $150,000 to construct and equip the space. St. Luke’s University Health Network and the R.K. Laros Foundation were key donors.
The food pantry is open from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays through the summer. The schedule will be adjusted as the school year begins in order to best fit the needs of the community. Starting Sept. 13, the pantry will be open on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“Our community has shared that the food pantry is important,” said Carolina Hernandez, assistant dean and director of Lehigh’s Community Service Office, who was integral in making the food pantry a reality. “The priority is access to food that is affordable. In this case, we were able to make it completely free.”
When asked about the journey of the food pantry from inception to the hot summer day when a line formed down the block, Hoffman spoke with emotion.
“So many people have dedicated time, resources and expertise to make this happen,” she said. “Seeing the traffic that has come through and the gratitude our community feels for having this resource is amazing. We have families who visit every week, some who visit once a month, and they are really grateful that this is accessible.”
Both Hernandez and Hoffman hope that the pantry continues to have a positive impact on the community.
“In the future, I see us expanding what we are able to offer to families,” said Hernandez. “We will continue to partner with Second Harvest to acquire healthy food that will be utilized. It has been an asset to the community to have a space for individuals to come and not only get food, but know that they are seen and heard. Those individuals now have a space to provide feedback on what else is happening in the community, and we can see where we might provide support.”
Fountain Hill Grocery Partnership accepts food donations for the pantry on-site and monetary donations via Venmo @FeedingFountainHill. Donations also may be sent to Lehigh's Community Service Office, with funds designated for the Fountain Hill food pantry. The food pantry's Amazon wish list can be found here.