When the families of impoverished students at Robbins School in southern Scott County begin receiving food — including perishable items like meat and possibly milk — later this month, it will be in part due to charitable purchases that were made by residents of the local community and coordinated by a local pharmacy.

The food pantry, which is being organized by Ella Smith through a partnership between her church — Rugby Road United Methodist — and the school, is funded by Second Harvest, the faith-based Knoxville food bank that has provided millions of meals to hungry families in East Tennessee. 

Later this month — the first distribution is currently set for November 20 — the Robbins food pantry will open for the families of students at the school who need food. On one afternoon each month, volunteers from Rugby Road United Methodist Church will distribute food — about $50 worth of groceries per family — to those who show up to claim it. And when they do, the charitable effort will also have Walgreens’ stamp on it. 

Fulfilling A Need

Smith, the now-retired former executive director of Morgan-Scott Project, is passionate about making sure financially-distressed families of the northern Cumberland Plateau region are clothed and fed. It has, in fact, become her life’s work. Her tireless — and, often, stubborn — approach has occasionally ruffled feathers. But it’s also earned her a reputation for getting things done when it comes to caring for the under-privileged of the community.

So, when Second Harvest was looking to implement a new grant-based program in Scott County, it knew exactly where to turn — or, rather, who to turn to. Smith had connections to the food bank through her work at Morgan-Scott, the job she left — in its official capacity, at least — in August. 

Second Harvest was awarded $16,000 in grant funding by Morgan Stanley, the New York-based investment banking company. The funds were to be used to establish an on-site food pantry at a school, with a church partnering to provide volunteer labor.

Smith always envisioned the food pantry being established at Robbins Elementary School. Her roots are in the county’s south end, and she knows the school is far removed, geographically, from existing food pantries. 

Ultimately, Smith convinced the Scott County Board of Education to approve the project. A space was provided in the school’s old cafeteria for storage of the food, the school system’s maintenance crew has installed electrical wiring to accommodate a refrigerator and freezer for the storage of perishable food items, and a grand opening is planned for November 20.

Is there a need for another food pantry in Scott County? Smith thinks so.

“In this community, both parents have to work to make ends meet,” Smith said. “And even then, you’ve got a car payment and other expenses and it’s difficult for a lot of people. This will provide $40 or $50 or $60 worth of groceries a month to these families, and that’s a big help.”

There will be no income guidelines for the Robbins food pantry; the only requirement will be that recipients have a child who is a student at the school. One afternoon a month, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., those families will be able to show up at the school to receive a selection of food that will help feed the family. 

The food pantry will have meager beginnings; its space at the school is only 12 ft. by 7.5 ft. Smith says that’s enough for storing the food but she worries about families being able to get out of the weather on distribution days when it’s cold or wet. Still, though, it’s a start. A work group will paint the small space next week, and a group from LaFollette is providing shelving.

“We’re not asking the school system to do anything except provide us the space and put an initial flyer in the backpacks with the kids,” Smith said. “That’s all we’re asking the school to do. My church will do the rest of it. And after one year, if the food pantry continues, a group of churches from the community will be responsible for it.”

Where Walgreens Comes In

When the Robbins food pantry becomes operational on November 20, the usual non-perishable items will be available: canned vegetables, spaghetti, mac-and-cheese, cornbread mix, and the likes.

But, thanks to a separate grant received by Second Harvest, perishable items will also be available. By the time the food pantry opens — after the room has been painted and the shelving installed — a freezer and a refrigerator will be in place. 

“Since we have the refrigerator and the freezer we can offer meat, and we might also be able to do milk,” Smith said. “We can’t store a tremendous amount of milk, but we can do some. A lot of times the USDA also has cheese, shredded and sliced, and different things like that.” 

While the $16,000 grant from Morgan Stanley will fund the food pantry, it could only be used to purchase food. A separate grant was used by Second Harvest for the refrigerator and freezer: a $10,000 grant from Walgreens’ grant fund that is funded by the pharmacy chain’s Red Nose campaign.

The $10,000 grant was received by Second Harvest to purchase refrigerators and freezers specifically for food pantries like the one at Robbins. The local community will be the sixth food pantry to purchase the appliances from that grant funding.

“That we could get this grant to pay for the refrigerator and the freezer, that’s been awesome,” Smith said.

The Red Nose Campaign

Ironically, Robbins Elementary School became the latest local school to join Walgreens’ Red Nose campaign last school year. Even before there was a move afoot to establish a food pantry at the school that would benefit from Red Nose grant dollars, the school was taking part in the campaign by selling the noses.

Started in 2015, the Red Nose campaign is in its third year. The red noses are becoming a familiar sight at events. Administered by Comic Relief USA, the Red Nose campaign has a mission of ending childhood poverty in America. The concept is simple: the red noses become a novelty item that people want to buy — and they can do so for $1. Fifty cents of each purchase go directly to charity, while the remainder are used to fund the cost of manufacturing the noses. Of the money raised, half funds projects in the U.S., while the other half is spent in the poorest communities of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

While the Red Noses can be purchased individually at Walgreens stores, they can also be purchased in bulk — a box of 60 or 360 — and then sold by schools and other organizations.

Locally, Oneida Elementary School is a big supporter of the Red Nose campaign. Former Scott County Mayor Dale Perdue had his team wearing the red noses at the 2018 county-wide clean-up back in the spring. And local soccer teams have worn the red noses.

Brad Chambers, manager of the Oneida Walgreens, estimates that the local store has raised about $9,000 through the sale of red noses since the program began. 

The Children’s Center of the Cumberlands’ Nancy Swain Watters Walk was one of the first events in America where the red noses were sold. Since then, the effort has caught on. Several businesses have gotten involved. H&R Block’s Oneida office buys a large number of red noses, and the Oneida McDonald’s gives out free ice cream cones to kids who enter the restaurant wearing a red nose.

“Between Tennessee, Kentucky and parts of Indiana, our store usually ranks around No. 3, per person, in that entire area,” Chambers said of the local drive to raise funds. “We have a lot of support. Honestly, it’s just the community that makes it successful. This community likes to support the kids. And I have a very engaged staff here at the store. Some people will come in and say, ‘I have bought two or three noses already.’ But my staff can convince them to buy another. Between the community and our staff, we have a lot of support.” 

Chambers wouldn’t mind seeing that support growing — other schools could choose to get involved by purchasing the red noses and re-selling them. Then the $3,000 that the local Walgreens raises each year could become $6,000 — or more.

The Red Nose funds are distributed in a variety of different ways. A portion automatically goes to the Boys & Girls Club. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America is one of the organizations with which Walgreens partners in its quest to make a dent in child poverty. Locally, the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau receives a certain amount of money from the Red Nose coffers each year. 

In other cases, the funding is provided through an application process, which is where Second Harvest and its $10,000 grant came into play.

Tackling Poverty, One Project At A Time

The Robbins food pantry isn’t the first time Walgreens has gotten involved in the effort to combat poverty in the local region, according to Smith. The pharmacy assists Morgan-Scott Project with a project twice each year.

On one occasion, Smith said, Walgreens built a wheelchair ramp for a resident in need. On another occasion, the pharmacy built a place for students to catch the bus at a trailer park.

“The district managers come in and they get involved and do these projects,” she said.

This article is the November 2018 installment of Profiles of a 3-Star Community, presented by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the November 8, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.