Sarah Sears can still recall the sadness she felt five years ago when she was bringing extra food to feed hungry students in her classroom at Green Intermediate School.

The school has since established programs to help alleviate student hunger. But Sears wanted her students to know that hungry peers could still be sitting just a desk away.

“I don’t know if they think of it as something that goes on in their own backyard,” Sears said.

This year, her sixth-grade students are taking the lead in making sure those peers aren’t hungry over the holidays.

Sears’ students have spent the last few weeks planning a campaign to collect extra munchies to tuck into boxes with Thanksgiving meals that students in need can take home to their families Wednesday.

Their food drive is an extension of the school’s Blessings in a Backpack program, a nationwide nonprofit that provides bags of nonperishable food for students to take home over the weekend.

Jennifer Doerrer runs the program in Green schools, which serves anywhere from 125 to 230 families throughout the year. Parents or even students can opt in and out at any time, and the program provides food for every child in the family 38 weeks out of the year.

Last year, Doerrer said an anonymous donor stepped forward to help provide a Thanksgiving meal to backpack recipients who wanted it. Seventy-four families opted in and had meals to look forward to for the holiday.

When Sears heard about it, she wanted her students to join in.

“My big thing was that a lot of kids in the district don’t realize just how lucky they are. This is just to kind of open their eyes,” Sears said. “I’m really, truly trying to have kids run it as much as possible.”

Learning experience

Sears wanted to collect more food for the Thanksgiving boxes, as well as toiletries for Christmas, while turning it into a learning experience for the kids.

She first invited Doerrer to speak to her 21 sixth-grade students about the backpack program and hunger statistics.

Then, students had to create posters, commercials and scripts for morning announcements to get the word out there.

Sears’ class voted on the best campaign, which was a poster made by 10-year-old Addy Padgett and 12-year-olds Emily Smith and Audrey Reimer that they put up around the school.

Then, on Monday, every student presented campaigns to different classrooms in the school.

Addy, Emily and Audrey visited two classrooms filled with buzzing sixth-graders.

They laid out the problems first, like the fact that Ohio has the third-highest number of food-insecure individuals in the country, meaning they don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quality of affordable, nutritious food. The girls also talked about hunger in both Summit County and Green schools, where one in four children is food insecure.

Then, the girls explained what exactly they were collecting — canned food, stuffing mix, frosting and cake mix for Thanksgiving, and assorted toiletries for Christmas.

By the end, much of the kids’ energy turned into curiosity. In each classroom, hands burst into the air with questions.

“Does it matter how many cans you bring in?”

“How do the kids get the food?”

“Can I bring in canned green beans? Because I have a lot of that.”

The girls answered each question with ease. They explained the challenges their hungry peers face — challenges that, until a few weeks ago, they knew little about.

Addy said the most surprising part of the project was “how many kids really need it and how we can help them.”

“It makes us realize that we get pretty much everything we want,” she said.

Her fellow group members nodded in agreement.

“When I’m at the grocery store with my mom and I see something that I want, she’ll usually say yes,” Emily said. “But I realized some kids don’t get food at all.”

Thanks to corporate donors and the extra student groundwork, even more families will be able to receive more food in their Thanksgiving boxes than last year.

“Those families were so thankful to have that food, I have never seen anything like it. But at the end of day, I knew we could do better,” Doerrer said. “Compared to what my family has at Thanksgiving, it was still lacking. [The food drive] is a way for us to get those boxes up to where a typical Thanksgiving meal should be.”

Families have until Monday to request a box. Doerrer estimates at least 50 will participate.

This year’s boxes will have the complete “Thanksgiving fixings,” Doerrer said, including a gallon of milk donated by Smith Dairy, butter, ham, pumpkin pie donated by Gardner Pies, bread donated by the Sam’s Club in Jackson Township, potatoes and a dozen eggs.

The student food drive helped fill in the blanks. In their short week of campaigning, students at Green Intermediate were able to collect enough canned vegetables, sweet potatoes, cranberries, stuffing mix and cake supplies to distribute to each box as well.

In the upcoming week, Sears’ students will take their experience full circle and join about 60 other volunteers to help put the boxes together.

On Wednesday, the district will either deliver the boxes to families or discreetly tuck them into students’ lockers, depending on what they prefer.

“I am so proud of the ownership my students took in regards to this project,” Sears said. “They truly care about improving the lives of kids in their own school and want to do their part to help.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com.