HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) – Rethinking the community school model as needs increased during the pandemic. One local school in Hartford got creative in its efforts to give back and is now helping to serve as a model for others.

Ninety-seven percent of Milner Middle School students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“Based on where our school is located, we’re considered a food desert as there are no major grocery stores in close proximity, so the needs are there,” said Leanardo Watson, Milner Middle School Principal.

Then enter the pandemic. Families in Hartford’s north end were hit hard. School officials got creative. They won a $500,000 grant from Cigna to address those needs, so they opened a food pantry inside the school.

“Calling it the Milner Market. We thought it was really important to call it a market instead of a food pantry to cancel any stigmas around the food pantry, but also, we provide a discrete time to shop. If they have to come in and shop, they will do it after school like today on a half-day when there’s no students here,” said Sahar Hakim, Community School Director.              

Walking the halls, you might not realize there’s a fully stocked food pantry. It opened in April in partnership with Catholic Charities and Foodshare to provide on-site wrap-around services.

“For free. It is a process. We wanted to also honor it, we don’t want people to feel a certain stigma,” Watson said.

The pantry is one element. A new program known as “Healthy Bodega” teaches families how to shop for healthier alternatives at their local corner store.

“Instead of Doritos, get some plantain chips, and do you know they like plantain chips? They didn’t know they did, but they do,” Hakim said.

Shoppers can even make culturally specific requests.

“My favorite suggestion was they want some oxtails, and we were able to get them. We were able to contact Foodshare and ask, ‘can we get these items for our families,’” Hakim said.

Milner is also using grant money to host community dinners for students and families. All of this is a model the district is looking to expand.