Filling a need: School pantries help keep families fed


By Jessie Wagoner


McPHERSON—As a family advocate at Washington Elementary School, Kelli Farley spends a good deal of time visiting with families about their needs. Through those conversations, she heard time and again families need help with groceries. Rather than file the information away, Farley jumped into action, creating a pantry for Washington Elementary families to use.

“It started when I was talking to a family who made just enough money that they didn’t qualify for any food assistance, but what they really needed help with was groceries; they could cover everything but groceries,” Farley said. “I felt like it was something we could help with, the community could help with, and so I started reaching out to people and building the pantry.”

The stories Farley hears are not uncommon. Many families experience food insecurity and are regularly forced with making tough decisions—purchase food or pay their rent. Research done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found 73 percent of food-insecure families say they regularly choose between paying their utility bills or purchasing food.

Farley and other advocates regularly referred families to the McPherson County Food Bank and the blessing boxes in town, but it wasn’t enough. The food bank has limited hours, the pantries aren’t always stocked, and there are times families need to just pick up something quick they can prepare for their children that evening. Farley quickly realized more options for food were needed in the community.

“We started talking and researching what other schools do,” Farley said. “One agency can’t do it. The food bank can’t do it alone; it really does take a village to care for a family.”

Farley’s pantry is growing. What started with some food items has now expanded to include toiletries, paper goods, household items and clothing. She hopes it only continues to grow.

“This is my starting point,” Farley said. “I’d love to grow it where it looks like an actual store and families can actually come in and get what they need like they are shopping.”

The pantry not only provides families with some food items or clothing but support in other ways, as well. When parents stop by to pick up items, Farley is able to check in with them and see how they are doing. She can refer them to other services as needed and offer support.

“I’m here. Someone is here to check in with them, listen to them, just be a support and visit about their mental health and give them a boost,” Farley said.

The program is working so well it is being duplicated in schools throughout McPherson and Marion County who are served by the McPherson and Marion County Early Childhood Education program. Farley says the program wouldn’t be possible without donations from the community. Peoples Bank, Grain Craft and others have donated food, diapers and other needed items for the pantry. Anyone interested in donating to the pantry can contact Farley at

“The families are so thankful for the help,” Farley said. “I wish I could just do it all, but we do need the donations, or it wouldn’t be possible.”

Suggested donation items 

  • Canned goods
  • Cereal
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Flour, sugar and salt
  • Gift cards
  • Diapers
  • Toiletry items
  • Paper goods
  • Peanut butter
  • Pasta