Banking on Food Banks: Rural Alabama High School Hosts and Operates an Essential Community Food Bank

Key Points

  • Community partnerships between schools and food banks can be a great way to involve students in the community and combat systemic challenges.

  • Persistence can help make the impossible possible.

Photo credit: Amanda Renfroe

One of the leading voices combating food insecurity and founder of Feeding America, Joel Berg, has a tried and true refrain: “To be schooled, you must be fueled. To be well read, you must be well fed.”

Joel is one of many speakers and authors on the subject of food scarcity and food deserts and a direct influence on Brandon Renfroe, a science educator at Geraldine High School in rural Northeastern Alabama. Brandon became passionate about this work when seeking his PhD and did copious research to better understand the food deserts that exist within his home state of Alabama.

He quickly noticed that many school districts in and around the Black Belt, although doing excellent work in the realm of food security, did not have dedicated, on-campus food pantries, which would serve in tandem with other services already in place.  

Geraldine High School Food Pantry

To address this issue in his own school system, Brandon reached out to the Food Bank of North Alabama and the timing was fortuitous. During this conversation, the representative from the food bank shared that they happened to be interested in starting a food bank in a public school and they were wondering if Geraldine High School would be willing to serve as a pilot program. Also, it got even better. Due to federal grants, the food shipments would not incur a cost to the local school.

Renfroe is quick to note Geraldine’s tremendous indebtedness to the North Alabama Food Bank, while also touting the need for diligence in forming sustained partnerships. “I tell my students: Do you have to be especially talented or intelligent to accomplish good work? No. But you do have to be persistent,” says Brandon.

In the summer of 2022, Renfroe received the good news. The partnership was on.

It works like this: on Thursdays, a dedicated truck delivers the much-anticipated boxes from Huntsville, Alabama, to Geraldine,  approximately 75  minutes away. Each week, the Geraldine pantry receives between 150-200 food boxes. From there, a trusted group of students helps Brandon unload the truck and label the boxes.

“Some food banks are relegated to school closets, with the onus placed on the kids to come get the food. We’ve tried to make the process as easy for the kids as we can: we bring the food to them. In reality, we have made ours a mobile pantry,” explains Brandon.

By means of additional student helpers, the food boxes are delivered  to the 70+ students who have signed up for the program. Brandon acknowledges that oftentimes the process of admitting food insecurity is an uncomfortable one, “students can be shy or embarrassed”. To address this, Brandon is active on social media and uses strategies that empower parents to reach out to him directly in order to add their child to the list.

“I think they know that no matter how they perform on a test, no matter how they perform on the football field …  I love them,” Renfroe says.

Photo credit: Amanda Renfroe

With 70 students claiming the food, this leaves a surplus of boxes–and Brandon knows just what to do with them.

“On Saturdays, a group of volunteers meet at the school and we share these extra boxes with the community, supplementing them with milk and other items, provided by generous community donors.” On special occasions, a food truck from the North Alabama Food Bank arrives with fresh fruits and vegetables and sets up a farmer’s market in the school cafeteria which creates a great opportunity for the community to gather.

West Alabama Food Bank

Across the state, in West Alabama, another rural partnership is blossoming. Renfroe, along with Ms. Heather Shambry, Child Nutrition Programs (CNP) director in Sumter County Schools, has forged a partnership with the West Alabama Food Bank. Through a program called “Secret Meals,” the food bank provides weekend food assistance to students in need. The West Alabama Food Bank estimates that a gift of $140 will provide weekend assistance, year-round, for one student.

To help with these efforts, Brandon spearheaded a GoFundMe campaign that raised enough money to feed 50 kids this school year.

When asked about how to identify those in need, Brandon said, “If I were a principal, I think the first thing I’d do is to take my teachers on a bus route and let them see where their students live. In many rural areas, teachers would see houses with dirt floors, without running water, or at least no hot water … it’s incredibly eye-opening.”

Want To Support?

Brandon and the Geraldine High School community have done incredible work to try and close the food scarcity gaps in rural Alabama, but the work is just getting started. If you want to support this work, you can write checks to Geraldine High School and earmark it for Bulldog Pantry. The address is: 13011 Alabama Highway 227, Geraldine, Alabama 35974. If you would prefer to support the work in Alabama’s Black Belt with Secret Meals, you can donate to the GoFundMe.

Food insecurity is a rampant problem in America and beyond. Community partnerships, powerful local leadership, and reimagining pre-existing assets and institutions are great ways to try and overcome the systemic and geographic barriers facing us all.

Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Director at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

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