Soon, every campus within the Harlandale Independent School District will have a mini food pantry, thanks to an investment by Community First Health Plans.

Similar to “Little Free Libraries,” where people can both donate and grab books, the pantries will be open to the public and for students to collect basic necessities, while the community — including students — is encouraged to add nonperishable foods to the small pantries.

Community First Health Plans will spend a total of $37,500 to build and transport each pantry to schools across the district, where 85% of students are economically disadvantaged. As many as 12,000 students and their families could be impacted, according to the nonprofit.

“If you have good nutrition, if you have food, you’re going to be healthier. As we started thinking about what we could contribute as a health plan to our community, the idea of a food pantry was developed,” said Theresa Scepanski, president and CEO of Community First Health Plans and a Harlandale ISD alum.

Launched almost three decades ago by University Health, Community First Health Plans primarily provides health care coverage to residents of Bexar and its seven surrounding counties. Its food pantry program is designed to ease food insecurity in the communities it serves.

Community Health has established similar food pantries for local nonprofits, churches and other organizations. The Harlandale school district joined after the plan was approved by Harlandale’s board of trustees.

Officials from the nonprofit and the school district gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the installation of the first accessible pantry on the front lawn of Gilbert Elementary School.

All 14 food pantries are expected to be installed and stocked by the end of August, said Community First’s director of corporate communications Cynthia De La Peña.

At the ceremony, two students filled the pantry with its first items, donated by Community First. After that, said Brian Jaklich, social work coordinator for the school district, the school and community will come up with creative ways to keep food coming in, such as canned food drives. Campus social workers will also keep up with the pantry and create ways for volunteers to donate items. 

“It may give our families and our community one less thing they need to worry about,” said Geralynn Wing, principal of Gilbert Elementary School, in a speech before the ribbon-cutting. 

Wing said the pantries will also help teach students to give back to their communities, a mission that teachers, administrators and staff have focused on this school year. 

“It’s an initiative called Gilbert Gives Back… It’s our mantra for ensuring a positive, educational experience, by putting our Gilbert school and our community first,” said Wing. 

The need is certainly there, said Jaklich.

“It’s a poor area, a low income area — very hardworking families though… There’s a lot of high needs as far as economics,” he said, adding that out of 1,025 school districts in Texas, Harlandale ISD ranks 21st from the bottom in property wealth.

Every month, the school and the San Antonio Food Bank host drive-thru pantries that feed 250 to 300 families each time.

“The need is high… with the high prices now with food, it’s crazy. Gas, too. It’s so hard for families to juggle everything they got to spend the money on,” Jaklich said. 

With over 50 people and students in attendance, Harlandale Superintendent Gerardo Soto thanked the nonprofit for its investment and said he can’t wait until all 14 food pantries are installed. 

“As you know, we’re a family at Harlandale, and one of our missions is to make sure no one is left behind. This partnership is yet another resource for us to be able to fulfill that mission,” he said. 

With the first pantry now at Gilbert, anyone in the community may approach the pantry, even when the school is closed, to take what they need or drop off food.

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.