Charter School Chef’s Labor of Love: Creating Marblehead’s Newest Food Pantry
“Director of Food Services” at Marblehead Community Charter Public School (MCCPS) is Danette Russo’s official title, but for Russo, it’s all about being “Chef Danette” to her students and a kind and discreet friend to the countless on the North Shore she has helped over the years, particularly in the arena of food insecurity.
Cooking healthy lunches is something Russo has done since she started at MCCPS a decade ago. Satisfying as that job is, though, it only scratches the surface of what she is all about. For many years she has partnered with charities that deal with hunger, including My Brother’s Table of Lynn and Food for Free out of Cambridge. The latest installment of Russo’s charitable efforts began during the pandemic, when she recognized that the unprecedented circumstances of lockdowns and the crisis unfolding would likely mean food struggles for a growing number of people. “I was so compelled to do something when Covid hit,” she says. “I felt if we could do one little piece to help, that would be something.”
Informally helping people–including elderly who live in apartments near the school–by gathering fresh produce, baked goods, and other food items from various sources gave way to an idea: apply for a grant to open a food pantry that could supplement Marblehead’s existing food pantry located across from Star of the Sea church. “This was my first rodeo,” says Russo, “and I didn’t want to step on any toes.” It turns out she did not need to worry about anyone being territorial. Janet Parker, who runs the Marblehead Food Pantry on Atlantic Avenue was wonderful, according to Russo. “She was happy that we would be doing this and was so supportive.”
Outside of the school sits a small stand-alone pantry that contains non-perishable food items for people to take (and leave) on the honor system. Started by town resident and one-time MCCPS parent Samantha Rosato, the Little Free Food Pantry has been used consistently since it was started several years ago, which is all the more reason to believe a full pantry would be put to use. It also is one of the ways Russo became acquainted with some neighboring elderly folks. And Rosato is excited about the newest addition to the scene. “The best part is that MCCPS [will be] running a pantry now,” she says, “and anything in the Little Free Pantry can supplement the people they are supporting. No pantries can completely cover a full need, so any additional assistance is always welcome.”
It has been encouraging for Russo to have Parker behind her and to know there are supportive like-minded people like Rosato happy to envision more options for those in need. So about a year and a half ago, after getting the thumbs-up from MCCPS’s Head of School Peter Cohen and Business Manager Jeff Barry, Russo contacted Swampscott Stop & Shop’s Store Manager, Andrew Ziner. He ended up being instrumental in helping Russo; ultimately, she secured a $10,000 grant from the store, and was able to begin the process of creating a brick-and-mortar food pantry in a building attached to MCCPS. Russo got some great advice, she notes, from some Stop & Shop staff who helped her along the way. “They told me to go slowly and to learn what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “There will be time to expand and build from there.”
Russo’s 20-year-old son Angelo (AJ) participated in this labor of love, and with his help, the area slated to house the pantry was cleaned, prepped, and painted. Once it was ready, MCCPS students–whose education weaves in community service and project-based learning–began helping with recording inventory and stocking shelves with the array of basic products supplied by Stop & Shop and other organizations. “I want this to be a learning experience for the students,” says Russo, who notes that privacy and discretion will be critical to the process, but in terms of preparedness and setting up, it’s a tremendous value to have the school’s students have real involvement.
Called “The Community Food Pantry at MCCPS,” the endeavor is launching next week. It will start as something to supplement groceries for those MCCPS families experiencing food insecurity–whether due to financial setbacks during the holiday season, illness, or a host of other reasons. “Our students are from the greater North Shore area,” says Cohen, “and for some students, Danette’s lunch is the best meal they may get some days.” Russo’s “springing into action,” was something Cohen wholeheartedly supported and continues to support as she prepares to take confidential orders every week from school families. “We are not just a town of yacht clubs,” he adds.
Russo wants to underscore that accessing the pantry is something that will be done confidentially, but also says that “it’s really important that people realize there is no shame” in seeking to access the food pantry. “I’ve been in this spot myself before,” she adds.
The system will be streamlined so that every family in the school will receive a weekly order sheet, where they may note their dietary restrictions and wish lists of items from the pantry. Outside of school hours, there will be set times to pick up bags with families’ orders ready to go. Eventually she envisions opening up the pantry to more community members.
As the process gets underway later this month, Russo expects to learn which areas might need improvement, and which areas are working well. “Hopefully we can also grow and include school supplies,” she says, noting that the backpack drives in town are tremendously valuable, but that she’d love to one day have ongoing access to such supplies throughout the year. In the meantime, anyone who wishes to donate money or pantry supplies may reach Russo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: The author of this story has children who attended MCCPS, and also served on the Board of Trustees for three years.