When the pandemic closed schools nation- wide in 2020, Paige Hoffman, community school coordinator at Fountain Hill Elementary School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, noticed 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. Hoffman began distributing meals to the elementary students weekly to replace the food they were not receiving while schools were shut down.
“Even as the pandemic began to wind down,” she says, “we predicted that food insecurity would continue to be high, and that has been true.”
Following internal discussions, staff in Lehigh’s Community Service Office approached Second Harvest Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania about partnering to open a food pantry at the elementary school.
A New Partnership
Second Harvest agreed to partner—as long as a nonprofit led the initiative. As a result, Fountain Hill Grocery Community Partnership was born, a nonprofit composed of representatives from Lehigh, the City of Bethlehem, Fountain Hill Borough and Cathedral Church of the Nativity in South Bethlehem. It is chaired by Richard Sause, Joseph T. Stuart Professor of Structural Engineering and director of the Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Center at Lehigh.
“Our community has shared that the food pantry is important,” said Carolina Hernandez, assistant dean and director of Lehigh’s Community Service Office, who had an integral role. “The priority is access to food that is affordable. In this case, we were able to make it completely free.”
Hoffman spoke with emotion about the journey to establish the pantry: “Seeing the traffic that has come through and the gratitude our community feels for having this resource is amazing.”