WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWTI) — School is back in session, but educators across the North Country are continuing to face an ongoing challenge in the classroom: battling food insecurity.

This is an issue that continues to hit families in the region as the North Country is often noted as a food desert. According to educators in the Watertown City School District, a majority of families suffer from food insecurity.

“The Watertown City School District is a community eligibility provision school, which entitles all of our students to free breakfast and free lunch. That provision is typically based on high-poverty-need school districts,” WCSD Assistant Superintendent and Chief Diversity Officer Stacey Eger- Converse said. “It’s pretty safe to say that probably four out of five of our families have experienced food insecurity.”

The Watertown City School District currently runs the longest-standing in-school food pantry in the region. This is through its Food for Families program, which helps to support hundreds of families facing food insecurity every week.

This pantry is located at the District’s Learning Center on Massey Street in Watertown. This is where shelves of non-perishable goods are stocked, ready to be sent home with students.

Watertown City School District’s food pantry is mainly run by local volunteers. The main organizer is Randy Ellie who is a retired Air Force veteran and now is giving back to his community. Every week, he helps to maintain and coordinate the food pantry’s schedule and inventory.

“We’ll get information from the families in need. So those numbers will come to me through the school and I’ll know that this week we have a hundred families, 106 families, 98 families, whatever the numbers may be. So I will ensure that our menu items are available for that many bags,” Ellie shared.

Menus for the food pantry are provided by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Ellie said the main focus is on breakfast, but each bag given to students contains a “robust” variety of non-perishable items.

Additionally, most items are given to the pantry through the Food Bank of Central New York. But the pantry also receives items from Aldi in Watertown and community donations. Funding for the program is granted through the United Way of Northern New York and the Northern New York Community Foundation.

We rotate through three menus, so we have three different bags. And we’ll go with one the first week, and we’ll just continue that rotation throughout the year,” Elli added.

And these efforts did not stop during COVID. Eger said that the Food for Families program was one of the first in the District to “step up” during the initial emergency closure in March 2020.

“During the emergency closure, we delivered the bags to every family,” Eger stated. “We had staff volunteers and community volunteers come out, grab a few bags that we had them marked with addresses of where they needed to go. And we were able to also provide just a check-in on families during that time as well.”

But even throughout the pandemic, and with the help of volunteers, Ellie and Eager said, maintaining the food pantry is easy. They shared the joy it brings knowing that these students facing food insecurity can have a meal on their table.

“I just really enjoy making sure, in this case, children have enough to eat for them to be able to go to school and pay attention,” Ellie expressed.

“If you don’t live with food insecurity and you don’t know what it’s like to see people be really grateful to receive something that we take for granted on a daily basis, it’s incredibly moving,” added Eger-Converse. “Some of the stories that I’ve heard from people who took the time to out of their day to go volunteer, is that they really have no true perspective of what food insecurity actually brings to families. So to see that kind of opened our eyes to what poverty actually is instead of what we perceive it to be.”

The Watertown City School District’s Food for Families Program will continue to accept regular-sized non-perishable food items throughout the school year. The District asks donors to call ahead and seek what the pantry needs before donating.

Check back with ABC50 throughout September for more Hunger Action Month stories.