Todd Elementary School Principal Melody Wirgau, school counselor Ava Dorst and social worker Whitney Klein gather for a photo in the school’s food pantry which reopened in October. after COVID-19. The pantry is larger with staff working to keep it stocked with food, coats, schools supplies and more.

BELOIT—She’s strapped donations of grocery carts atop her car and helped struggling families find housing, clothes and affordable vehicles.

She’s the Todd Elementary School school social worker Whitney Klein. In a school where more than 70% of the children are from families in poverty, staff get creative and go above and beyond in their duties to help. Klein, along with school counselor Ava Dorst and Principal Melody Wirgau, keep the school pantry running and in turn keep kids focused on their school work.

“We have a lot of food insecurity. There’s a handful of students with behaviors which are food-driven. They might not have eaten dinner. If a child is hungry, we will come get snacks and offer them food to take home. Kids here know they don’t have to go home hungry,” Wirgau said.

The School District of Beloit has three pantry sites—Todd, Merrill and Hackett schools. At Todd, Dorst and Klein spend about seven to eight hours a week prepping the pantry and assisting shoppers. Klein said spending time with families in the pantry is a good way to get information about students and any assistance they may need.

“I use the time to check in with families. It’s our time to talk when they are shopping,” Klein said.

It’s held every Tuesday morning. If the time doesn’t work, special appointments can be booked. Staff also have delivered food to homes if necessary or backpacks can be filled with food.

The pantry reopened in October after being shut down in observance of health safety guidelines initiated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It contains frozen meat, milk, fresh produce, canned goods and more. It also has school supplies, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Klein and Dorst have created a Spotify list of uplifting tunes to play in the “store” to help shoppers maintain their dignity. Shoppers also have a separate door so they don’t have to walk the halls of the school.

This year the pantry moved to a larger space so families who visit can also “shop” for coats and snow pants, hats, mittens and more.

Dorst with Wirgau wrote the grant application about four years ago to get the pantry running including obtaining a refrigerator and freezer. They were awarded an allotment of food through Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.

Families usually receive a big box, with two frozen meat packages, pizza, milk and staples such as macaroni, canned goods, peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes they will receive donuts or ice cream. Wirgau explained it is open to any family in the district and that a bilingual liaison comes in to help make it more inclusive. Identification is not required.

“A lot of struggling or working parents say the pantry is a huge help. Even if you aren’t super struggling you can stock up or save some money for rent. We tell all of our families, you don’t have to be struggling,” Klein said.

“We have a lot of working poor. If you have a family of three or four children you may not be able to afford rent, utilities and food,” Wirgau said.

School staff often purchase clothing or other donations to add to the pantry’s offerings. Families using the pantry received 40 Thanksgiving baskets with turkey and pie, pie crust and sides. In December, more than 50 students will get Christmas presents thanks to staff who sponsor children. More than 100 additional students were referred to other local toy drives.

Occasionally lamps, sheets or towels are provided by Second Harvest, which can sometimes also be used for holiday gifts for families.

“If a family has a need, I’m going to try to fill it,” Klein said.

Both Klein and Dorst are products of the school district and eager to serve their community. Klein, who has been at Todd for two years, said she recalled volunteering in a nursing home with her elementary school as a child and fundraising in middle schools. Klein grew up around the corner from the school, attending the former Burdge School, Converse Elementary, McNeel and Beloit Memorial High School (BMHS). A career guide at BMHS helped her narrow her focus to find the perfect job for her.

“I’ve had lots of opportunities which shaped who I am in my practice,” Klein said.

Dorst attended the former Morgan Elementary, Aldrich and BMHS.