According to University social work graduate students, a large number of the Sparks High School student population attend classes with an empty stomach.
Recognizing the need for the kind of assistance a food pantry and resource center could offer, Marcia Cooper and Danielle O'Brien, graduate students in the University's School of Social Work, opened the Sparks High School Student and Family Support Center on March 8.
The small building behind the school houses the food pantry and extra rooms which will be used for support groups in the future, according to Cooper and O'Brien. The pantry provides the students and their families with jackets, blankets and children's toys in addition to food.
The Food Bank of Northern Nevada provided about 400 pounds of food. The Sparks leadership class and ROTC also hosted food drives in the weeks before the opening of the pantry.
"We received over 800 pounds of food from the students," O'Brien said. "The students were excited to help each other."
Residents in the area are also permitted to use the services offered by the food pantry, although the primary constituency of the food pantry are the students. According to Katie Nannini, public information officer of the food bank, over 50 percent of the students at the high school are eligible for reduced or free meals.
"About 657 out of 1,133 students at Sparks High are on free or reduced meals," Nannini said. "This was a real high indicator for the demand for this service in the area."
The amount of students that were on free or reduced meals coincided with the amount that were doing poor academically. O'Brien and Cooper said they hope to increase academic performance by providing the students with what they needed most and yet were going without: food.
"A hungry child cannot learn," Cooper said.
The students can also receive support with their home and social lives along with fulfilling their need for food and clothing. O'Brien and Cooper hand out resource referrals for assistance from counseling to addiction rehabilitation.
"When someone reaches out to you like that, it opens the door to other kinds of assistance that is needed: relationships, drugs or domestic violence," said Gloria Messick Svare, field liaison and social work professor. "Having someone who cares and someone who reaches out can open the door for further assistance."
O'Brien and Cooper plan on expanding the current services the food pantry makes available, such as possible support groups for students with incarcerated parents. The two graduate students are currently surveying the student population and faculty to detect what services would most benefit the students according to their needs.
O'Brien and Cooper hope the opening of the food pantry will demonstrate the benefits school social workers can provide in northern Nevada's schools, which don't have official positions for school social workers.
"Social workers can increase the student's academic performance by handling outside issues," O'Brien said. "Teachers and counselors do what they can inside the school but they don't have the time to go to the students' houses or do the kind of extensive counseling social workers can."
The assistance that social workers can extend to students, especially those who fall in a low socioeconomic status, in the time of adolescence can be crucial, Svare said.
"This is such an important time in life," Svare said. "The new food pantry shows people what social workers could add to school and garner more support for that. We're really proud of our students."