Shanay Thompson does it all. Model, medical student, mobile developer, social entrepreneur. The former pageant queen and Wilhelmina model holds a Bachelor’s degree in Molecular and Cell Biology as well as a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley. Thompson’s most recent endeavor, Every Kid Fed, focuses on food insecurity beyond school breakfast and lunch programs by establishing food pantries located on-site at schools for students in need. These food pantries help fill a gap within the California food system in schools, especially with the current homeless and housing crisis due to rapid gentrification.

What makes Shanay Thompson a Boss Woman?

Shanay Thompson is a Boss Woman because of her resilience and ability to help others that aren’t able to help themselves. Thompson established a busy because she saw a problem and wanted to provide assistance to conquering that problem—food insecurity.

“Every Kid deserves easy access to food to thrive and I won’t stop working until childhood hunger in schools comes to an end.” -Shanay Thompson

The following article was originally published on Forbes, an American business magazine.  

How One Social Entrepreneur Took Childhood Hunger Into Her Own Hands

Former model. Medical student. Mobile developer. Social entrepreneur.

Shanay Thompson is all four—and then some.

How? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

After a successful career in the modeling industry, Thompson decided to become a doctor. Motivated to help others, applying to medical school felt like a natural fit, and when she got into Stanford University, she started to mentor at-risk teens in her area. From this volunteerism, Thompson launched Every Kid Fed, a grassroots nonprofit which runs and funds year-round pantries schools in Oakland, California. And now between grocery-shopping for kids’ snacks, meeting with school principals and 5:30 AM clinicals, Thompson’s got a lot on her plate.

But it’s worth it. Since she launched Every Kid Fed last year, Thompson has singlehandedly managed to stock and two pantries (third one coming soon!), feeding hundreds of students who would otherwise go hungry. She’s also not stopping there. Currently, she’s teaching herself to code, so Every Kid Fed can provide students with boxed meals during the summer using a digital app.

Over the last few weeks, Thompson and I have been chatting about her journey and the intersectional overlap that led to the launch of her nonprofit. In this interview, we talk about using a DIY approach to tackle real-time issues, what it means to cross industries and how we can all use a problem-solving mindset to help our own communities.

Jane Claire Hervey: Basic, simple question—who are you and what do you do?

Shanay Thompson: I truly wear many hats. I’m a medical student, former Wilhelmina model, entrepreneur, at-risk teen mentor, founder of Every Kid Fed, and my app Meal Box by Every Kid Fed. Every Kid Fed addresses food insecurity beyond the school breakfast and lunch program by setting up food pantries that are conveniently located on-site at schools for students in need. Essentially, the school pantries complement school breakfast and lunch programs by providing access to food for children during and after the school day has ended, on the weekends and during holiday and summer breaks. The pantries are stocked with fresh produce, snacks, protein and whole grains with vegan and vegetarian-friendly options. This helps fill an important gap in the California food system in schools, especially with the current homeless and housing crisis, mostly due to the rapid gentrification.

Hervey: Let’s go back to some of those beginning moments in Every Kid Fed’s story. What pushed you from passive ideation into action with EKF? When did you decide “OK, now’s the time” and why?

Thompson: For me, childhood hunger in schools is a big issue that gets swept under the rug, and now more than ever are children suffering due to a rise in income inequality, gentrification and families being displaced in the Bay Area and in cities around the U.S. Right now, 1 in 5 Californians live in poverty. Low-income families are sadly put in a position where rent, utilities and healthcare costs come before groceries. Parents are going without eating so they can feed their children or they’re cutting portions at home, thus leaving kids going to school hungry. No parent should have to endure that kind of stress and no child should have to suffer from hunger. In schools, children often don’t have the platform to have their voices and needs heard. Furthermore, there are many ramifications that go beyond a growling stomach. Being hungry also impedes on the ability to learn, can hurt test scores, children suffer from headaches, stomachaches, anger, anxiety and sadness noticing peers having snacks and hearty lunches and they don’t. Before launching Every Kid Fed in July 2017, I mentored at-risk students at Berkeley High School while I was a student at UC Berkeley. Within the years of me mentoring, I noticed an increase in students asking for food, because they don’t have food at home or were afraid to utilize the free breakfast and lunch program because of the fear of being bullied.

So with all the information and insight I had, I knew something had to be done. I didn’t want to wait on policymakers, or waste any time trying to get someone else to do something, for that matter. These children need food immediately, so I started writing a proposal down and approached the principal of my first pantry location, Berkeley High. She instantly approved the food pantry proposal. Initially, it was going to be exclusively for that school, sort of like a test run to see how well it does, but I realized there were more students that needed a pantry on their campus. I decided to file the necessary documentation with my county to bring Every Kid Fed to life, and then the real work began.

Hervey: How did you determine that onsite school pantries were the solution to the hunger problem you observed? How have schools and students reacted to the project?

Thompson: I wanted to make sure each pantry is a convenient, non-judgmental environment for students. I wanted students to feel comfortable and to know that they will always remain anonymous and they have people they can come to. I also wanted to have snacks and food that students enjoy while also promoting healthy eating habits. With teacher or counselor approval, students in need can leave during class and come to the pantry, before or after school, during lunch or they can have a parent/guardian pick up what they need. Erasing the stigma and the anxiety many hungry students suffer from and make it a welcoming, fun place to grab food is a strategy I knew would attract the students in need. School is stressful enough, so taking away the element of them worrying where their next meal was coming from, would now be eliminated. I also placed my focus on schools that are Tier 1, known as high poverty schools.

These are schools that have an alarming percentage of low-income students that is typically 90% and higher. They are in impoverished communities and what I’ve noticed is that these schools are often left behind in terms of lack of funding, poor academic performance and behavioral issues. So I’ll give you some anecdotes. One student who is a daily pantry visitor grabs breakfast, lunch and snack items and puts them in her backpack. This student felt comfortable telling me that before I opened the pantry, she would get made fun of and kids would call her poor because she would get free lunch. Many of her peers get money from their parents to eat off campus, or have delicious, filling lunches from home. Because of the bullying, she would just skip getting free lunch altogether so she wouldn’t be embarrassed or looked at as poor.

At one my of other locations, Cox Academy, an elementary school in East Oakland where 93 percent of children are low-income, kindergarten students used to ask for seconds and thirds during lunch time, because that was their last meal of the day. Think about that. Kindergarten students. One of the most touching moments was a first-grader who found out I was the one stocking the food into the pantry and he ran up to me, gave me a big hug and thanked me. It’s such a bittersweet moment because on one hand it’s wonderful to know needy children are getting fed, however no child should ever have to go hungry, but many more are suffering in silence. I now have schools contacting me via my website or social media asking if I would be willing to open an on-site pantry at their school because they have an increasing number of hungry students. It’s a great feeling knowing that something I worked so hard to create is in fact needed. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I am working hard towards creating a solution to help end childhood hunger.

Hervey: To get Every Kid Fed off of the ground, you had to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset by seeking funding, establishing a brand identity, determining the community you serve, etc. How did you DIY that process? Perhaps take us through a few of the moments in which solving this problem meant taking a personal risk.

Thompson: It was definitely not an easy task! In terms of funding I started EKF with my own funds to get the ball rolling until I could secure donations. On weekends I would approach ten to 15 grocery store managers and pitch to them about EKF and ask for a gift card donation. Almost every store was excited to donate and gave me gift cards ranging from the lowest of $25 to the highest being $1000. I would use those gift cards to stock the pantries and for a couple of months, that was enough. I was like “cool, everything is running smoothly.” It wasn’t until about the third month in, the word started spreading more and teachers, counselors were sending their students to the pantry, in addition to parents getting word about EKF and would stop by to pick up food. I started getting emails that food stock was low or completely out because so many students were coming in, at that point I was like, “Oh my God, what did I get myself into? How am I going to be able to sustain these pantries just on store-level gift cards?” I knew there was a need but I had no idea that the pantry would grow at such a rapid rate. At the same time I was totally excited about the success and that students in need are getting fed. It truly sunk in that now I have people counting on me and that is a pressure of great magnitude—even more than being a medical student.

So I put together a list of companies and started using my professional contacts and started applying for grants. I then realized. Ok, I’m competing with a ton of wonderful nonprofits for grants that are going through this same standard process, so I said what the heck, I’m going to start emailing the CEOs of these big companies. To my surprise, it actually worked. During my clinical rotations I would use any break I had to email the CEOs of companies like Salesforce, Amazon, etc. for donations and many of them replied back with a kind personal note and put me in touch with their community outreach department. So I was fortunate enough to bypass the traditional application process and was able to get funding a lot faster, along with building professional relationships with some powerful figures.

Hervey: You’re currently in medical school, and you’re a former model. Now, you’re a nonprofit founder in between medical residencies. How have you adapted to these different roles? Where do you see the overlap between these professions?

Thompson: Being a signed model was such a fun time in my life. I was fortunate enough to do some amazing shoots, model in New York Fashion Week, but I knew it had an expiration date. I wanted to find my true purpose and further my education and be at the forefront of changing issues in the world that matter to me, so something had to give and I decided not to renew my modeling contract. Being a model and a medical student was never an adaption for me because I was already knowledgeable about those roles. I will say being a nonprofit founder is something I definitely had to adapt to, simply because I’m doing it by myself and there are a lot of logistics that I have to follow. I will also say there is definitely an overlap between medicine and being a nonprofit founder. Both are about serving the community and helping those in need. Since I have such an extensive background in healthcare, such as having my master’s degree in public health and being a medical student, I know that childhood hunger is a serious issue that has health ramifications. I have treated children complaining of headaches or stomachaches and when I ask if they ate anything, they say yes. But that breakfast was often chips or a sweet roll with a sugary soda. So this makes me better equipped to incorporate healthy eating and provide food options that hold the maximum nutritional value in the pantries.

Hervey: How do you take care of yourself while taking care of others?

Thompson: To be quite honest, I still haven’t fully mastered the art of taking care of myself! I’m always going 100 miles per hour and I have the absolute hardest time giving others some responsibility, but I have gotten a lot better with being able to ask for help when I need it. In order to take care of yourself, you need to be able to assign some responsibility to others, and know that it doesn’t make you look lazy or weak. Creating positive change is truly a team effort. EKF wouldn’t be successful as it has been without the help of school administration, teachers, the parent resource centers and the people that I love who extend a helping hand when I need it. I also believe in celebrating the small victories, Pilates keeps me centered, eating healthy, pampering myself, weekend getaways, binge-watching Netflix shows and on Snapchat with my friends and family are all great ways that I personally take care of myself. I know, I’m such a millennial.

Hervey: What’s next for Every Kid Fed?

Thompson: Now that I’ve secured funding from some incredible companies, I was able to expand and create an extension of EKF, Meal Box by Every Kid Fed. It’s an app that serves students at each pantry location during the holiday and summer breaks, by letting students or parents order a meal box every two weeks that includes a vegan/vegetarian box or our signature box all through a quick and easy process. I wanted to explore the tech side and actually created the app on my own by teaching myself how to code in the little free time I had! I’m so excited about the launch of this app and I know it will further help so many in need. I’m also partnering with local council members and members of Congress to push universal free lunch for all students in California public schools and securing more funding to expand Every Kid Fed nationally. Every Kid deserves easy access to food to thrive and I won’t stop working until childhood hunger in schools comes to an end.

This article was originally published on Forbes, an American business magazine.  

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