As southeast Salem food pantries close, teachers step up to feed families

Caryn Connoly, left, a Roberts High School teacher, and Courtney Clendening, a Clear Lake Elementary School teacher, load food into a family’s truck at Four Corners Elementary School on March 25, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Cortney Clendening loaded a box of apples, flour, canned soup and split peas into a waiting family van outside the Four Corners Elementary School gym.

“Just know all your teachers are missing you,” the elementary school teacher said to the children inside as the car pulled away.

With local schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many food pantries shutting their doors, Marion Polk Food Share is working with Salem-Keizer School District to repurpose school gyms as temporary food banks.

On Wednesday, March 25, teachers worked to pack and distribute 200 boxes of food to families at Four Corners, a southeast Salem elementary school with one of the highest student poverty rates in the district.

“We believe that food should go to where people are,” said Rick Gaupo, president and CEO of Marion Polk Food Share.

He said the food share usually distributes food to about 50 pantries in the greater Salem area. But in recent days, about 10 of those have shut their doors, often because the churches they’re housed in have also closed due to concerns about spreading the virus. The closures included a pantry at Trinity United Methodist Church, which is next door to Four Corners, and another pantry in the neighborhood, Gaupo said.

The pantries still operating are seeing a spike in demand, he said, likely due to rising unemployment as many workers in the service industry and beyond lose their jobs from coronavirus-related closures.

Gaupo worked with district leaders to set up weekly food distribution at the school so the neighborhood doesn’t go unfed during a public health crisis. Wednesday was the first run.

Auburn Elementary teacher Alejandra Guerrero checks in a family picking up food at Four Corners Elementary School on March 25, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Teachers, eager to get out of the house, signed up to help.

“Finally, something that I feel like I can do that’s useful,” said Caryn Connoly, a Roberts High School teacher.

The food bank service, open to anyone in the community, is in addition to daily free breakfasts and lunch district lunch workers are handing out for kids at 35 schools.

On Wednesday, families across the district picked up nearly 15,000 meals for kids, including more than 850 breakfasts and lunches at Four Corners, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The meal distribution has at times run counter to social distancing guidelines, with families showing up in larger numbers than cafeteria workers can handle. It’s a problem the district is working to address, spokeswoman Lillian Govus said, with better markers so families stand farther apart while waiting.

“That’s a concern for us as well. We know the crowds are larger than our cafeteria workers can manage,” she said.

At Four Corners, the district emailed school families letting them know about the food boxes, but didn’t publicize the giveaway more widely to avoid running out. Those interested pulled cars, and sometimes wagons, to the side of the school.

Clear Lake Elementary teacher Cortney Clendening distributes food from the Four Corners Elementary gym on March 25, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Alejandra Guerrero, a special education teacher at Auburn Elementary, tallied the number of people in each household, sometimes speaking to parents through rolled-up windows or homemade masks.

Then, she yelled the number of boxes for each car to Connoly and Clendening, who loaded them into pickup trucks, vans and station wagons. Families with eight or more people got two boxes.

Next week, educators will hand out 300 boxes at Four Corners, and district employees pick up the food from Marion Polk Food Share, freeing up their resources, Govus said.

Guerrero said getting outside and volunteering was part of “trying to stay sane” during an uncertain time for educators. 

Teachers and other school employees are being paid during the closure. Those volunteering Wednesday said they were worried about their students, missed being able to help them and wanted to do something besides sitting at home or walking their dogs.

At Roberts, Connoly teaches students who have been expelled from other district high schools. Many don’t have regular Internet access, making it hard for her to keep in touch during the closure.

“I know a lot of them don’t have the easiest lives. I worry about their mental health and just how they’re doing,” she said.

Clendening, a first-grade teacher at Clear Lake Elementary School, said she’s been “trying to adjust to the new normal” of staying home. She’s made a Facebook page for her students to read to them and share learning resources, but said getting outside to do something new was a welcome change.

“I needed something to do. I know this is a need and I’m able to help fill it,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.