Originally published in The City Journals on February 3, 2023.
In 2020, when public health officials mandated a 6-feet mandatory distance between non-family members, Utah Virtual Academy initially moved their food pantry outside to a drive-thru until administrators could find another way to help serve their families in need.
Soon after, they partnered with the Murray Children’s Pantry, an independent pantry in the heart of Murray at 170 E. 5770 South.
That partnership allows for UTVA’s online students to serve their community by helping stock the shelves with nonperishable food items and to accept donations on behalf of the pantry as well as to take advantage of items available if needed, said school student services administrator LuAnn Charles.
Recently, about 90 UTVA students who are experiencing homelessness and/or are economically disadvantaged were given “blessing bags” to help them through the winter break.
The bags, which were filled by the nonprofit Courtney Anderson Foundation in St. George, contained Modere products such as soap, shampoo and lotion, as well as other personal hygiene items, laundry detergent, stocking hats, blankets and school supplies. Charles said the foundation has helped provide funds to UTVA families in need.
“We told our families to get blessing bags to help and at the same time, fill a box of food to help sustain them,” Charles said. “This year is a little tougher than other years during COVID. I’ve had more families say ‘We’re in desperate need’ so it’s the biggest response we’ve have within our school for the blessing bags. There are about 10 families in need who have come to me and said, ‘I don’t have money for gas,’ and they live close to the Murray area so I’m delivering bags and food to them. We know a student is unable to learn if they are hungry and if they are worried about their basic needs. A parent is unable to support their students if they are struggling to make ends meet and consumed with worry of how do I provide for my child. Being able to offer this is the best part. We’re grateful for our partnerships in helping our students and their families.”
Families arrived by car, and volunteers quickly rushed out to fill their requests.
One UTVA mother, who wished not to be named, said “there’s nothing back home for my children. I came to help get food to sustain my family so this is a great thing. I’m very grateful.”
A volunteer, who also wished to be anonymous, was helping in the pantry. He volunteers on a regular basis when the pantry is open on Tuesday mornings and the third Saturday morning of each month.
“I help because for any school child to be hungry in America, there’s no justification,” he said, adding that thousands of meals are distributed from the pantry every week. “We have an abundance in our country, in our community, and children shouldn’t be hungry.”
The retired civil servant remembers a story when a second-grade teacher was helping a child pack up her belongings for the weekend and the child began to cry. The teacher asked the student what was wrong, he said.
“The child said, ‘School is where I eat,’” he said. “Children shouldn’t cry when they go home for the weekend because they’re going to be hungry.”
Murray Children’s Pantry board member Steve McGinty also was volunteering, taking donations of shelf-stable and canned food items from cars as they pulled up, including contributions from Murray police chief Craig D. Burnett. McGinty was carrying out cartons filled with items as quickly as food was donated.
“We’ve seen an increase in the last couple months,” he said. “We’re seeing demographics change in our school and more families are struggling. We’re wanting to help.”
Coordinating the 20 volunteers in the former home of the Murray Baptist Church pastor was Jennifer Brass, who sat with a clipboard in her lap amongst boxes waiting to be filled with canned goods stocked on the shelves.
The children’s pantry opened under Brass and her husband, Jim, three years ago to provide food for children who were out of school for the summer and didn’t have access to school lunches. Their goal to eliminate childhood hunger within the Murray community during the summer has spread to welcome anyone in need of food all year.
“The first couple months was mostly taking in donations; people hadn’t heard about us yet,” Brass said. “When COVID hit, it started to be less on just children needing food as more families were impacted with sickness and from loss of jobs. We started building the family boxes of food. On a typical week, we put out 12 family boxes, which feeds a family of four three meals for a week. But today, this is exceptional. We’ve already given our 22 boxes.”
She said many families are feeling the pinch.
“That’s a big thing right now—to make rent, they can’t buy the gas to get to their job, they need food assistance. We would rather assist with food, than for them to lose their job or lose their home,” Brass said.
She said fortunately all the food is donated by generous community members. They also received donations of assistance when they moved into the donated pastor’s home.
“It’s been an incredible journey. When we moved in, there were a few things that needed to be done—and most of those were done through donations,” Brass said. “The kitchen has been renovated. We put in a furnace and when the worker saw what was going on in here, he didn’t charge us for the labor. After the original ramp into our building was stolen, we had a new ramp within a week that was donated to us. We have so many generous people and so many wonderful stories.”
While USANA Kids Eat program provides food for youth in Murray School District, the Murray Children’s Pantry offers help to Murray schools in the Granite School District as well as others, such as UTVA. They also provide food to the senior center and to local veterans.
“With kids, we send out a tote bag which is meant for one child for two days, so it’s a smaller amount of food that they’re able to carry for a shorter time period,” Brass said.
Twin Peaks Elementary’s Zee Stewart picked up tote bags to give to students.
“I have 80 kids and the numbers of kids who are in need continue to go up,” she said. “We started this year with 55 and it’s hard when the cost of everything increases. We also have a lot of refugees at our school, and we have kids who are in shelters so this can help them. I worry most when there are school breaks. What are they going to do for 14 days? We put together a list of pantries that are open, but they all don’t have the transportation to get there.”
Stewart said all three years the pantry has been open, food donations have helped sustain Twin Peaks students.
“Our former principal used to come over here and grab 15 bags three years ago. Last year, I took over to pick up about 25 bags,” said the behavioral aide and part-time librarian who uses her own car to get students their food. “The children’s pantry is just amazing; they reached out to our district, and Granite School District is a big district, to offer help to the local schools because that’s who they are and who they can help serve.”
Brass is appreciative for Murray’s support in providing for others.
“This is a miracle,” she said. “You come in here and you see all these people, all different shapes and sizes, all different religions and sexes, and they’re all working together to create something very positive to give to our children and our neighbors in our community. I feel fortunate and it’s good to help, but it just about breaks my heart that so many people are in need.”
To learn more about Utah Virtual Academy, visit https://utva.k12.com/