ACPW Vice President, Melynda Benlemlih caught up with Katy in May at Lanier Middle School to talk about her current ventures.
Q: What makes A Place to Eat different that other food programs in schools?
A: Food programs in elementary schools have heavy participation from adults; teachers, administrators and volunteers who identify needs and get resources to those in need. As children age up into middle school the need is often still there, but the time and attention from adults becomes less and less and a perceived stigma can start to set in among adolescents. I observed this gap and knew there was a place to provide valuable resources and help connect the dots so these students and families can still receive the support they need in a confidential and respectful way.
Q: How does A Place to Eat at Lanier work?
A: We really have a core team of just a few of us; myself, a teacher, and a school social worker, and of course the support from school administration leaders who find space for us to operate. Between the three of us, we identify needs, figure out the best way to get support to those students and families, coordinate donations from other organizations and groups who want to donate. We are really piloting a model that we hope to continually improve and provide as a structure for other schools to begin with so they can learn from our experiences.
Q: What’s are the biggest challenges you face right now?
A: We are so thankful for the outpouring of interest from our Fairfax County and City communities and non-profit organizations in providing donations. What’s always a challenge is finding volunteers available when we need “boots on the ground” at the schools organizing the pantry, bagging up supplies, and providing behind the scenes organization. I would love to use a simple tool like SignUp Genius to organize volunteers for various roles but we are too big to utilize the free version and don’t have the funds to pay the annual fee for the full version. We know we need to have a better social media presence to share our work but we just don’t have anyone with a couple hours a week dedicated to support that right now.
Q: What are some other innovative ideas you are working on?
A: In my experience, there are systemic challenges in providing fresh, healthy food year-round. To increase our fresh food portion of donations, I’m working with areas farmer’s markets and farms to glean produce from their overstocks that we can quickly distribute to those in need. We know there is a need to provide support over the summer when school is out. So I am working right now on a model that will take our supplies out to neighborhoods where the need is great. I’m working on suppliers and ways to communicate so we can get the program up and running.
A Place to Eat is a program of the A Place to Stand (APTS) organization, which acquires buildings in neighborhoods with high incidences of hunger and homelessness to makes housing available for families in need. Programs at the residences provide classes, offer GED certification, basic literacy courses and job training to promote independence. Each facility has an organic garden which provides a revenue stream for sustainability, healthy produce for the residents and the community, and organic agricultural and environmental science education opportunities for the community. An on-site restaurant provides meals and is staffed by residents who receive food-service training that could lead to restaurant employment. For more information on APTS visit