CNE Preschool ‘Blessing Box’ is an oasis in a food desert
By Dick Maloney
At Clermont Northeastern’s Preschool, not only can you count your blessings, you can share them with others. Just drive up to the front door.
There, you can find the district’s first blessing box, filled with food and essential household items. Take what you need, leave what you can.
The blessing box is a partnership with Ohio State University Extension and Child Focus. OSU Extension has an office at the Clermont County Fairgrounds in Owensville, about a mile north of the preschool campus. Becky Fiscus is the SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) program assistant for OSU Extension, teaching nutrition education to all ages - low-income pre-school children through senior citizens.
“I knew that this area is a food desert. There is not a grocery store here except for the gas station and the Dollar General,” Fiscus said. “So we needed to find a way for families to get food without having a grocery store nearby or with the food pantry being closed. So I decided let's try and put a blessing box there.”
Fiscus contacted Preschool Director Wayne Johnson, who not only gave his approval, he also built the box earlier this year.
“I say ‘Good, let's do it.’ And so it's taken a while,” Johnson said. “I built the box and it sat in my garage forever. But we finally got it up and to get started here.”
The box itself is about two-feet-wide-by-three-feet high, and secured to the brick wall to the left of the main preschool entrance. Inside the glass door are two shelves with the food and household items. The words “Take what you need. Leave what you can” are on the door.
Organizers say the box will be open year-round, 24 hours a day. School staff will help monitor the box; CNE CARES (Community Alliance for Resources, Engagement and Support), which has its offices and food pantry in the preschool, will restock and replenish when needed, with help from Inter Parish Ministries, based in Newtown.
“I'm hoping to get some 4H clubs involved, other places involved, to help provide food as well,” Fiscus said. “And if people need a little extra between when they can’t get to the store when the food pantry isn’t open, they're welcome to go there and take what they need and if they have anything left over, put it in there.”
Anyone can take advantage of the box – you don’t have to live in the school district or even in the county. Johnson said he is not worried about people abusing the program.
“That's where we come in. (It’s) where the kids enter there every day so my staff can keep an eye on it, I'll keep an eye on it,” he said. “There was someone somewhere else who said, ‘Well you know if they take it, they need it.’ So we're not worried about you know if they've empty the box. Fine. We'll fill it back up.
“If there's a need and people need something out of the box, or everything in the box, that's fine, they can have it. We’re not worried about what people are taking as long as they're using it.”
The strong sense of community in the school district and neighboring areas will help ensure the box stays full, Fiscus said.
“We're a smaller community and we definitely work to help each other out. And so I think between CNE Cares and IPM and all the other organizations. I think it's going to be well stocked,” she said.
“I don't see any problems with that,” Johnson said.
Jess Hartley, Inter Parish Ministry’s Director of Community Engagement and Giving, said the organization is thrilled to work with CNE to build food security in the community. The partnership began with providing “power packs” for students and has expanded to hosting mobile food pantries during the summer and supplying CNE Cares with up to 10,000 pounds of food per month.
“Power packs” include two breakfasts, two lunches and a snack, to tide kids over on weekends when they cannot get school meals.
“We love the new (blessings box) initiative, because these little pantries offer convenient, anonymous food access 24 hours per day; families facing a crisis know they can always find food items in the box to get them through, and anyone in the community can help fill the box for their neighbors,” Hartley said.
People who may not need items from the blessings box are encouraged to leave food or household supplies at the box or at CNE Cares.
Once word gets out about the blessing box, and the program becomes popular, Fiscus and Johnson hope to expand it to other locations in the community as well as the Clermont Northeastern high school, middle school and elementary campuses.
Clermont Northeastern Preschool is at 463 S. Broadway in Owensville.