Updated: January 10, 2013 6:42AM
CONNERSVILLE — Students in an impoverished eastern Indiana city will have help in getting enough to eat, thanks to a new food pantry.
Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana set up the pantry at Connersville High School to serve students and their families in Fayette County, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. The pantry is open on the third Thursday of every month.
Census figures show that 22 percent of the county’s 24,000 people live below the poverty line, which is 8 percent higher than the state rate. Most of the school’s 1,200 students qualify for free or reduced price school lunches. In September, the unemployment rate in Connersville, once a haven for manufacturing jobs, was 10 percent.
“Our town unemployment is really high here, so a lot of people need help,” said senior Chelsea Congleton, 18, a student volunteer.
Some 4,640 Fayette County residents are at risk of hunger, including more than 1,600 children, according to Gleaners, which operates school-based pantries in 21 counties the nonprofit serves.
“Food banks have really been looking at how we can better serve children. The school pantry program came about as a way to directly serve students,” Edward Oliver, a Child Hunger Corps member who helped start the Connersville program, told The Indianapolis Star.
“Regular community pantries may not be as easy to get to, so this is an easy way of food assistance to children in need,” he added.
Holly Dunn, who coordinates the Connersville school pantry, said 20 families showed up when it opened Thursday.
She said some of the students who help at the pantry are those who ordinarily struggle academically and whose parents don’t get involved in school activities. She said the pantry gives students and parents a chance to work together.
“I had a parent who had not attended a school activity ever since her kid was in sixth grade,” Dunn said. “But she was able to come here and we learned more about their home life. A lot of times, things are hard at home, and it’s nice to be able to have the time to get to know them.”
Gleaners opened its first school-based food pantry in Indianapolis in 2010, and now has food pantries at 14 Marion County schools, most of which are within the Indianapolis Public Schools district.