As the semi-trailer eases its way around the back of Central High School, students finish stacking sturdy boxes in a room just off the cafeteria.
They need at least 380 boxes that will be filled with the food from the Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies: cans of fruit, soup and beans, bags of nuts, rice and apples, frozen blueberries and turkey slices, butter and boxes of cereal and raisins.
To the beat of music coming from a stereo, volunteers unload food from the semi-trailer and place it on its designated red-topped table in the cafeteria. On this February afternoon, it’s Samantha Sidebottom, Central’s kitchen manager, who has a chart showing where each food item should be placed on the circle of tables.
“We’ve got a plan,” she said.
“We’ve come a long ways,” said Debora Hysell, Central’s lead custodian.
Both have been involved with the Warrior Wellness Wagon since it began a couple years ago and a call went out to Central’s staff for volunteers.
It’s a once-a-month, all afternoon operation to get food to those who need it, by Central families or members of the community.
On February’s Wellness Wagon day, 380 families or individuals were scheduled to pick up a box of food and a gallon of milk.
However, the program’s volunteers are sure there are more people in the community who could use the help. The Wellness Wagon’s capacity is 500 families, and its volunteers are ready to serve.
‘I JUST SAW KIDS HUNGRY’
Kim Flynn found herself eating her lunch, only to look into the eyes of a hungry teenager.
If they had the nerve, some even asked, “Can I have some?”
“I just saw kids hungry, and I saw families struggling to feed teens,” the Central High School special education teacher said.
She couldn’t simply sit there and eat her lunch anymore, and when one of her sons brought home from school a flier from Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies, she decided, “I’m just going to call these people.”
That phone call took place about three years ago and led to two food distribution programs at Central.
The first was the Food Frenzy, which takes place the second Thursday of every month and is geared specifically toward students, who can grab snacks or bags of vegetables and fruits on their way out the door at the end of the school day.
The second was the Warrior Wellness Wagon, which began in fall of 2019. It is open to members of the community and is the bigger of the two programs. Families or individuals who qualify for the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) can sign up online to pick up a box of food between 4–6 p.m. on the last Wednesday of each month.
The online sign up allows the program’s organizers to place an adequate order with the food bank and guarantee each family the food they need, Flynn said.
When Central Principal Lanc Sellden was first approached by Flynn about coordinating with the food bank to help students and the community, it seemed a little daunting but “it has been awesome,” Sellden said.
“For our kids who have homes that need the additional food, the additional resources, it’s great,” he said.
Students as well as school faculty have volunteered, spending hours moving boxes, cans and bags and seeing the positive impact they can have on their community, said Sellden, who can be found among those volunteers, greeting people in their cars as they check in for the Wellness Wagon.
‘THE DAY WE PLAN FOR’
As volunteers pull wagons with two or three boxes around the circle of tables in the cafeteria, others stationed at each table begin filling those boxes for the February Wellness Wagon.
Along with students from Central’s Student Senate, members of the Warrior Battalion JROTC and members of the boys basketball team were there to volunteer, putting bags of rice and dried fruit and blocks of butter into boxes as wagons rolled by. When some students needed to leave, others arrived to help, as did family members of staff.
Flynn’s son, Brendan, and students with Fellowship of Christian Athletes at CMU were there to volunteer taking boxes that weigh between 40–50 pounds off wagons and loading them into cars.
“This is the day we plan for all month long,” said Trey Downey, a Central teacher and the Student Senate sponsor. “I got involved because Kim was involved. … I’m the logistics guy.”
He worked with his Student Senate kids to set up the Google form people use to sign up for the Wellness Wagon each month. And on one day between the sign-up deadline and the distribution day, his classroom turns into a call center as students call every person signed up to remind them to come get their box of food.
Central freshman Bryce Davis has made the Wellness Wagon his particular project for Student Senate.
“I’m really good at organizing things, and I saw this as an opportunity for improvement,” Davis said.
He created a new website for the program, chswarriorwellness.org, where people can sign up for the Warrior Wellness Wagon and learn about Central’s Wellness Center.
He has created signups to organize students and staff volunteers and is heading up an effort to get groups of employees from local businesses to volunteer during certain months, depending on restrictions related to COVID-19. Jolley Smiles already has agreed to volunteer on a future Wellness Wagon afternoon, he said.
Davis also is in the process of approaching local businesses to donate incentives that can be given to volunteers to thank them for their work. On this February day, Davis handed out pizza donated by Papa John’s and Little Caesars to volunteers as the afternoon edged toward evening.
‘WE HAVE ZERO WASTE’
When the Warrior Wellness Wagon began in the fall of 2019, it grew so fast that it reached its 500-family capacity by that December, “which amazed us … and that was pre-pandemic,” said Sue Ellen Rodwick, director of the Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies.
The food bank was able to refer families, some of whom were driving to other West Slope counties to receive assistance, to the program at Central, Rodwick said.
Central is the only school in the Grand Valley and, “as far as I know, it’s the only school that’s doing that program in all of the Food Bank of the Rockies,” Rodwick said. “This is a very unique thing that they’re doing.”
“We love them. They’re awesome,” she said. “I really believe it helped us going into the pandemic.”
The Wellness Wagon continued, albeit with fewer volunteers, even when the school switched to online learning last spring, Flynn said.
Fortunately, their system already was contactless, and the need was great, she said.
As the pandemic has continued, though, the number of people who have reserved a spot for picking up food has decreased. Some people moved, others found work or were able to rebalance their family finances, and still others may be able to receive the food they need in other places in the Grand Valley, Flynn said.
This has opened some room for those in the community who perhaps haven’t yet discovered the Wellness Wagon, she said.
There also are people who consistently reserve their spot each month, she said. She’s met grandparents raising teenagers — “teens just eat!” Flynn said emphatically — and struggling families and elderly individuals.
“I’m really, really big on making it something that they’re not ashamed of,” she said.
“I think it makes me feel good to see how many people we’re helping,” said Shannon Payton, a special needs para professional at Central. She helps with the paperwork side of the Wellness Wagon and volunteers for every distribution day.
If there is food left over from the Wellness Wagon, it is saved for the Food Frenzy or given to the families of students who staff knows may have a need, Payton explained while breaking down empty food boxes in the cafeteria as the number of cars outside dwindled and volunteers got ready to clean things up.
With the Wellness Wagon, “we have zero waste,” Flynn said. “We have a real food problem in America. We shouldn’t be hungry. There is plenty of food.”