Phillips Avenue Elementary School celebrated the opening of its own food pantry yesterday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and balloon-drop in the school’s cafetorium before a crowd of very enthusiastic students.

On its first evening of operation yesterday, the new food pantry served 71 people, according to the district’s website. The pantry will be open on the second and fourth Thursday of every month from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The brainchild of Phillips Avenue principal Debra Rodgers and teacher Jean-Marie Mazzaferro, the pantry is the first of its kind inside a school in the Riverhead Central School District. It’s a joint effort between the school and Island Harvest, the Mineola-based food bank that annually provides millions of pounds of food to food pantries across Long Island. For the past several years, Island Harvest has helped the school provide meals to nearly 200 students per week in school and also provides “backpack meals” for the weekend for kids in need.

“Nutrition is the most basic thing,” Phillips Avenue principal Debra Rodgers said in a recent interview. “If kids are hungry, they can’t learn.”

More than 80 percent of the K-4 school’s 589 students are receive free or reduced-price lunch, Rodgers said. That’s the highest number of any school in the district.

Under income eligibility guidelines, a child is eligible for free lunch if his family’s household income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level: $31,005 for a family of four. A child is eligible for reduced-price lunch if her family’s household income is 185 percent or less of the poverty level: $44,123 for a family of four.

Roughly 8 percent of the students — 45 kids — are living in temporary housing, school social worker Celeste Gneco-Vasquez said.

“There’s tremendous need in these children’s families and also in the wider community,” Rodgers said.

The effort is “part of a ‘giant hug’ that continually embraces the students in the Phillips Avenue School,” Randi Shubin Dresner of Island Harvest said during yesterday’s event.

“Teaching students about citizenship, community, caring, and giving is an important part of our school philosophy,” Roders said yesterday. “I am honored to be a part of this program. The staff at Phillips Avenue continues to go above and beyond for our students and community. Thank you to all our volunteers.”

Donations of nonperishable food items will be accepted during the school day at a table set up in the school lobby. Gift cards to local stores may also be donated (Stop and Shop and Costco stores preferred.) The school requests that gift card donors return the donation form below with the gift card. (Click the “download” button to download and print. Label the form “Food Pantry Donation” to receive a receipt for tax purposes.)

For donations “in honor of” or “in memory of” or for additional information please call 631-591-5987 or email [email protected]

Photos courtesy of Riverhead Central School District

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.