Photo: Self-portrait by Shanay Thompson.
I was a Wilhelmina model since I was in high school. I was featured in Vogue magazine, Elle magazine, and Cosmopolitan. I also did pageants. I loved it. But I finished New York Fashion Week in 2014 and I knew there was a bigger purpose for me. I decided to finish my undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley.
I started mentoring at-risk students during my senior year at UC Berkeley and I carried it on into my Masters program, which I also did at UC Berkeley. The kids came from families with incarcerated parents or only one parent families. Some were living with grandparents. Some were homeless. I knew they were probably struggling at home, but I didn’t know the extent of it.
Students started asking me for snacks. Some would ask in secret. Or they’d ask for lunch money. I asked teachers if they’d noticed this. They had, but nothing was being done.
My Masters degree was in nutritional epidemiology [the study of the role of diet in disease prevention] and my focus was primarily on maternal and child health, so I came up with the food pantry Every Kid Fed. I wanted to create a pantry that is not stigmatized because a lot of students get made fun of if they get free breakfast or lunch or don’t have food.
A lot of people don’t know that families are struggling, even families I thought looked well-off. I’ve seen parents who make six figures and they’re struggling to put food on the table because rent is so high in the Bay Area or they have other things to pay for. You never know who’s going through something.
The trial run of Every Kid Fed was at Berkeley High School in California. It blew up. Teachers started sending students. Parents would stop by. There is now a second location at Cox Elementary in East Oakland, where 93% of the student population is low-income.
The pantries are open Monday through Friday and students can use them anonymously. Typically, students will come on Friday and fill up their backpacks with food. Berkeley High is more of the grab-and-go model. Students like to grab a granola bars or chips or a salad. I also have lunch, snacks, and dinner items. I have spaghetti noodles, peanut butter, bread, TV dinners, organic juices, and Gatorade.
I started Every Kid Fed with my own funds. Then I went from store to store to pitch Every Kid Fed. Everyone was so receptive and loved the idea and would donate gift cards. I used those to buy food. I eventually got some big sponsors like Marc Benioff, the CEO of SalesForce. They donated $10,000. Amazon donated. Google donated. I have a partnership with Target.
My next project is doing the Kid Chef Summer Meal Box. It’s going to launch on June 22. We’re taking pre-orders now. You can sign up online or order via the app. It’s first-come-first-serve for students in need. You get a big box of vegetables, milk, poultry, cheese, and snacks that will last you about four days. We started with about 200 boxes and we’re down to 19.
I’ve been getting an overwhelming amount of support. It’s fantastic. It’s also stressful. But it is gratifying. I just had a caregiver of a student who contacted me and thanked me. They were recently displaced so the pantry helped out their child. I get teachers that come up to me all the time and say what a wonderful program it is. They take snacks for their students because there are first-graders who come to school without snacks for snack time. A lot of those kids get anxiety or get upset or cry because they don’t have food and their peers have food. The teachers will grab a granola bar or apple juice and secretly give it to the kids or put it in their cubbies.
(Photo: Shanay Thompson)
The pantries are growing. I didn’t expect for it to grow like this, so fast. Two pantries are open now. We’re opening one in Richmond and another one in Sacramento next month. The trajectory is to continue to open pantries in high-poverty schools, not only in California but state to state nationwide.
Shanay Thompson is the founder of Every Kid Fed. She holds a Masters in public health from UC Berkeley and is a medical student at Stanford University. You can follow Every Kid Fed on Twitter and Instagram.