NEW PORT RICHEY — Three times a week, Achieve Center at Richey fifth-graders walk out of class. They aren't protesting school work, but are helping with the school's newly established Little Food Pantry at 6915 Madison St. in New Port Richey.
On a recent morning, the students, accompanied by Achieve Center principal Chris Clayton, checked the small rectangular box mounted about shoulder high on a pole in front of the school. A clear cover protects contents.
Restoration Church constructed the pantry box, and Riverside Baptist Church has donated food items.
Students turned cans of green beans and tomatoes to face out. On a lower shelf were individual-sized cereal cups, cans of mandarin oranges and a stack ramen noodles.
The food, and sometimes items like soap and shampoo, are free to any child or adult in need. Giving back is encouraged. The concept of the pantry is posted on a sign: TAKE WHAT YOU NEED. GIVE WHAT YOU CAN.
The fifth-graders, with staff supervision, check the pantry and replenish it when needed with donated items. It's a job they take seriously.
"This is a blessing," said fifth-grader Jose Martinez, 11. "The point is that people who don't have food can get food here."
"We're giving to people who are struggling," echoed Nicholas York, also 11, another fifth-grader.
"I'm passionate about making sure kids have food they need," said Clayton, who spearheaded the project that opened in August. "The pantry serves both school and community."
Achieve students wanted to help.
"Having kids involved is a great way for them to learn about serving others (who are) less fortunate," Clayton said, "a valuable lesson for all kids."
Of the 30 students who attend Achieve, seven are fifth-graders. Allowing them to shoulder this responsibility helps as they transition to middle school.
"I'd like to see more schools do this," said Clayton, acknowledging that in areas of Pasco are children who don't have enough food. Some of those needs are met with "pack-a-sack" take-home bags of donated items that ensure kids have food on weekends and holidays. Civic clubs frequently donate food for the bags.
During the summer, the lunch bus program offers free lunches for students 18 and younger at locations throughout the county.
Achieve Center at Richey serves 30 students who have faced learning hurdles at their home schools due to emotional or behavioral challenges.
"We serve K-5 students, and we work to give kids skills to be successful in life. We believe that all kids can learn if they are provided with the right support," Clayton said.
More information about Achieve Center at Richey is at www.acr.pasco.k12.fl.us/about-us.