Returning from spring break, Doris Smith’s first call was to a family displaced by a fire in their home.
Fortunately, no one was injured, the family told Smith, who is a family and community support provider at Thirman L. Milner Middle School in Hartford. The family was stable on food and other essentials. But the children’s school uniforms were lost.
Milner officials were able to replace uniforms through Milner Market, a recently opened food pantry located in the college that provides food aid and other essentials to families. This is the latest development in Milner’s longstanding relationship with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford, which provides after-school programs and a wide range of comprehensive supports to the school community.
“We all come together. Families will tell us what they need and we’ll get it to them,” Smith said.
Milner Market, which opened April 6, is one of four such pantries that have opened in Hartford schools since the pandemic began amid an increased need for goods and services among low-income communities. Parents and caregivers can purchase groceries, from non-perishables to frozen meats, as well as other essentials, such as cleaning supplies and hygiene products.
“I don’t ever want to hear a child or a family say, ‘I didn’t…'” said Leanardo Watson, director of Milner. He said he was always looking for ways to supplement what was accounted for in the budget, adding: “The money doesn’t go far.”
The market is made possible by a $500,000 grant from Cigna Corp. as part of the Bloomfield-based company’s global Healthier Kids For Our Future initiative, which aims to reduce food insecurity in high-need areas.
About 1 in 7 children in Connecticut face food insecurity, according to Connecticut Foodshare, a regional food bank. Communities of color have been hardest hit after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted job security and supply chains.
Although progress has been made to reduce Hartford’s “food desert” status, the census tract surrounding Milner Middle School is one of two in the capital in which a significant number of residents live more than one mile from a supermarket, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
During the grant’s first year, Milner tapped Catholic Charities to coordinate Cigna’s “Full Cart” program, which delivered packed lunches directly to homes.
Milner used the grant to sponsor mindfulness training among school staff, which will be completed by the end of the year. The school has also created a training course for parents and caregivers called “Healthy Bodega”, which teaches community members how to buy healthy and nutritious food from their nearby grocery store.
The name Milner Market was intentional, said Sahar A. Hakim, director of the Catholic Charities community school. Organizers want to make families feel like it’s no different from any other grocery store and avoid the stigma unfortunately attached to food pantries and similar venues.
Likewise, the buying process is structured to maximize discretion. Family members collect their groceries from the back of the school and only one family is allowed in the market at a time during shopping hours. It’s a no-shame zone, but they let families control their own stories.
As in the case of the family displaced by the house fire, the market is already making a difference.
“There have been times when I have run out of food or personal hygiene products, and I was so glad the Milner Market existed,” a parent wrote in an email. “I want to thank you for your help and hope it continues to help more people like me.”
Milner is called a “community school”—a model that uses a primary external agency to provide much-needed supports without relying on full-time district staff. The model is built around four elements: family engagement, leadership and collaborative practices, student support, and extended learning opportunities.
It’s essentially an extension of the school day, Hakim said: “Extended services, extended hours, extended partnerships.”
Beyond Catholic charities, Milner also has partnerships with The Village, a youth mental health organization, and Hartford Knights, a local youth organization.
“We are engaging multiple stakeholders, all at the same time, to coordinate services to remove barriers for students as well as families,” said Nuchette Black-Burke, Outreach, Community Partnerships and Engagement Manager. district family.
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Hartford Public Schools has used the community school model for “about 14 years,” according to Black-Burke. Participation has grown from just seven schools with integrated partners to include all 39 schools in the district, which fall into four different tiers based on need.
Milner is a Tier Four school — the highest tier — as identified by the state Department of Education’s Responsibility Index, which indicates the highest need and most services.
Catholic Charities is integrated into the building, with staff on site. The organization runs daily after-school programs until 6 p.m. each evening, with transportation provided. Students can participate in sports, mentoring opportunities, or take part in a wide variety of activities such as barbering classes and martial arts.
Alexx Dennis, Catholic Charities program coordinator at Milner, loves the cooking class — on which he serves as a taste tester.
“Yes, I run the program, but I also see the progress of the kids,” Dennis said.
“How can we come together to provide all the different types of services a student might need? It goes beyond academics. … It’s focused on the whole child,” Watson said.
Seamus McAvoy can be reached at [email protected].