Every year, the Boy Scouts of America collects millions of items to donate to food banks across the country through its Scouting for Food drive. Adam Kerkemeyer and Andrew Schuerman, students at Parkway North High School in St. Louis, are two longtime scouts who never failed to participate in the drive. But when COVID-19 hit, the Boy Scouts temporarily shut down the Scouting for Food program.
“The cancellation had a devastating impact on food banks in the St. Louis area,” Schuerman says. At the same time, the school’s NHS chapter—to which both boys belong—had suspended its requirement for volunteer service. So last spring, they decided to do something in St. Louis to help fill that gap.
“Especially in a time of economic decline and seeing that many people had been laid off from jobs and all these other different factors were making things hard, we thought it would be a great idea to help our local area,” Kerkemeyer says.
With the participation of many other NHS members, they organized a food drive and ended up collecting about two tons of food. Much of it went to a small food pantry housed in a district middle school. That was enough food to help keep donations going all summer long, which is the time of highest need for students and their families since free or reduced-price lunches are unavailable. The drive will take place again this year, but as a required service event for the chapter’s 80 members. So, this time around, Kerkemeyer and Schuerman are expecting to collect even more food.
Efforts like those at Parkway North are taking place all over the country as NHS chapters and their members step up to help address the daunting challenge of food insecurity. In some instances, chapters have teamed up with No Kid Hungry, a national group committed to ending childhood hunger in the U.S. In other locations, chapters have organized their own grassroots efforts, partnering with local food banks, churches, civic organizations, and other community groups.
Pandemic Creates More Food Insecurity
According to the latest figures from No Kid Hungry, as many as 13 million children in this country live in food-insecure homes, meaning their household doesn’t have enough food for every family member to lead a healthy life. In the decade before COVID-19 hit, those numbers had been falling steadily, but the impact of the pandemic reversed much of that progress.
As Kerkemeyer and Schuerman discovered in their community, school meals can be the only reliable source of food for many children who live with hunger. That’s why food drives to help local food banks are so important to fill the need that school meals alone can’t fill.
And students aren’t just helping with anti-hunger efforts because their NHS chapters require their participation in service projects. Advisers are quick to praise students for taking the initiative to get involved when they discover the extent of hunger in their own backyards.
“Our students have seen that there’s a need in our community,” says Eli Edwards, NHS adviser at Boyle County High School, in Danville, KY, “and we’ve tried to attack it in a variety of ways,” including volunteering at food pantries, installing blessing boxes (which are stocked with nonperishable food for anyone to take), and organizing community food drives to get citizens involved.
“What is really cool and exciting for our students,” Edwards says, “is that they are becoming leaders themselves by creating opportunities for other people to serve. They’re already looking forward to finding new ways to expand next year.”
Many individual NHS members at the school have started projects on their own. One student, for example, organized a drive that resulted in a couple hundred students signing the popular No Kid Hungry Pledge and committing to help end childhood hunger. Another student successfully applied for a $500 grant from the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, which helped install three of the blessing boxes.
But the events that attract the most donations are food drives at Kroger grocery stores. The students set up tables out front and hand out flyers listing the best items to donate, and then shoppers drop off the items on their way out.
Edwards’ NHS chapter and school also have included an educational component by participating in the End Hunger in 30 Challenge. It includes 30-minute lessons each day for 30 days to teach students about hunger. Edwards says the statistics and other facts help students see the importance of their anti-hunger efforts.
Discovering Hunger in Students’ Own Communities
Arjun Govindaraj is an eighth grader at The Honor Roll School in Sugar Land, TX, but he already has become a local leader in anti-hunger efforts in the greater Houston area. With his twin sister, Maya, he co-founded the nonprofit Mission BE A Resource (BEAR), which helps low-income communities by donating and volunteering, primarily through local food banks and other groups fighting hunger.
BEAR started three years ago with the siblings and a few of their friends and has grown to include many members of the NJHS chapter at their school. One of the biggest events in which the honor society students participate is the “stuff the bus” holiday food drive. The students collect canned goods and dry food for Houston-area food banks. A bus comes to pick up the donations, hence the name. “We didn’t realize how many underprivileged people there are in this area who really need help,” Govindaraj says.
Andrea Zehentner’s NHS students at Clear Horizons Early College High School in Houston are also deeply involved in efforts to fight food insecurity. The school is somewhat unusual, located on the large south campus of San Jacinto College. Every Clear Horizons student earns an associate degree when they graduate, which is basically paid for by the community, Zehentner notes, so “we really want to make sure we give back to our community.” And one of the ways that students do that is through anti-hunger service projects.
Every year, the school’s NHS chapter and student council focus on different activities and engage in awareness campaigns about food insecurity so that students understand why they are collecting food. While the school itself is small—about 400 students—the location on a community college campus with 13,000 students opens up opportunities to reach a much wider audience.
“We are the first building that most people walk through on campus, so our students have made posters and other campaign materials that catch people’s attention,” Zehentner notes.
All the students volunteer at the food bank, but there are other initiatives they participate in as well. One food drive at the school collected more than 1,000 items that went to an organization focused solely on childhood hunger.
The surrounding area also has a large Muslim population, so every Sunday is a volunteer opportunity when men at the mosque make hot meals to deliver to families in need. The students help with the cooking. Zehentner says that one boy, who is generally very quiet at school, loves interacting with the men at the mosque, who all know him by name. “Even if we don’t have other students coming from school, he goes on his own,” she says.
“It can be so wonderful to see our kids in action,” Zehentner says. “When you’re in the classroom, sometimes you start to feel like they are a bit privileged or a bit whiny about doing their assignments. But when we get them out working, whether it’s at a food bank or at the mosque, they work hard without a complaint. They don’t do it grudgingly; they just embrace it, which I think is fabulous.”
Dan Gursky is a freelance education writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.