Nearly 15,000 children in Dane County live in poverty, one in six Dane County children face hunger and about 800 Madison Metropolitan School District students are homeless.

In the face of those statistics, local nonprofit Selfless Ambition announced today that it will partner with Second Harvest Food Bank and the Madison Metropolitan School District to place food pantries in schools with the highest levels of poverty, beginning with Glendale Elementary this fall. 

“Every study shows that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” said Selfless Ambition founder Henry Sanders, who is also publisher of Madison365, in a statement. “Some schools have taken it upon themselves to establish food pantries, which is wonderful, but there hasn’t been one central location coordinating funding, coordinating best practices, helping them with infrastructure. This effort ensures that all school pantries have consistent methods and all the research and information they need. The more coordination we have, the more sustainable it will be and the better results we will get to make sure no student goes hungry. Our goal is to nourish our children so they can focus their hunger on education.”

In a video announcing the partnership released Tuesday, MMSD Superintendent Jen Cheatham noted that schools can feed children during the school day, but, “we have no ability to support a child who might have food insecurity in their lives when they go home. A student can’t be fully present, they can’t fully engage in deep and rich learning if they’re hungry.”

Cheatham also said those food pantries that have been introduced in individual schools such as Mendota Elementary have been successful.

“There’s all kinds of studies that have been done that show that children that go to school hungry, lacking a good nutritious diet, have trouble focusing, concentrating, they don’t do as well on exams, they’re absent more often, and they have a higher drop out before graduation rate than their counterparts,” said Second Harvest CEO Dan Stein. “Other studies show there’s an impact to health. Children that lack a good nutritious diet have higher rates of obesity and kidney problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, behavioral issues, just to name a few. And these are all preventable. Just by making sure that they’re well fed, and not hungry when they’re in school, we can help students execute better, stay in school, graduate and move on without some of those health issues. This is not just treating hunger today, but really preventing issues in the future. That’s why it’s so important.”

Second Harvest helps operate school food pantries in other communities around the state, and will provide storage and logistical support as well as food.

“We’re really good at sourcing food from retailers and manufacturers and farmers, but we don’t have the boots on the ground to start these programs,” said Second Harvest Child Hunger Specialist Andrea Draeger. “It’s really important to have partners.”

In addition to Glendale, organizers hope to have three food pantries established in schools by the end of next academic year. Organizers said the effort will focus on the 25 schools in Madison with the highest rates of free and reduced price lunch eligibility.