As M-A’s famed annual canned food drive races into the final stretch, our campus is once again flooded with canning paraphernalia. “Help us meet our goal!” reads the enormous banner in Pride Hall; Uncle Sam recruits your cans from the B-21 door; minimalist Chi-Can posters line the bathroom stalls. Yet beneath the catchy beats of the “Can $huffle” lurks the serious reality: according to the Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) 2014 Hunger Study, ten percent of Silicon Valley residents rely on SHFB for food every month; on average clients receive assistance from the bank 13 times a year, versus the national average of eight.
The fact that M-A has been working to combat food insecurity in our community with the canned food drive since 1999 is a testament to our school’s dedication to giving back. But I think M-A’s lighthearted approach to the complex issue of food insecurity washes over its nuances and is a missed opportunity for more meaningful service.
We put a lot of emphasis on canning when in reality, cash donations are much more helpful for food banks than food donations. Canned or boxed foods purchased in stores might be expired, fail a bank’s nutrition standards, or just don’t fit a family’s tastes; this October alone, about 9500 pounds of food donations to SHFB went to waste. Meanwhile, monetary donations can go towards buying food in bulk. According to the SHFB website, “Every $1 donated to the Food Bank provides nearly $3 worth of healthy food at a local grocery store.”
In fact, all the food on Distribution Day comes from monetary donations. Using the funds raised, Leadership selects certain foods they feel are essential for all families to have — such as bread, apples, oranges, or tuna — and buys in bulk. The actual cans that M-A students collect get distributed around the Bay Area through SHFB.
This is not to say that throwing money at the issue is a solution either. There is value in going out and spending time serving the community, but why do we insist that it be through canning when we know money goes farther in helping food insecure families? This year, Leadership classes started a letter writing campaign where they wrote letters to 20 friends and family members asking for monetary donations. What if we encouraged the entire student body to do the same, instead of encouraging canning? Since the food given out on Distribution Day is entirely from monetary donations, with more funds we could increase the amount of fresh, nutritious foods we are able to give directly to local families.
“I think one thing that schools can do is connect curriculum with the cause,” Bernadette White, the community relations coordinator at SHFB, commented through email, “What causes hunger in our community? Why does it exist? Really raising the questions that we should all be asking — and using that line of inquiry to engage in further action!”
Following this line of thought, another alternative could be something like a service month, where students are encouraged to volunteer directly in food insecure communities — perhaps tutoring low-income youth, working in community gardens, or food sorting at SHFB — rather than standing outside stores in privileged neighborhoods asking people for cans. This service could be part of a larger all-school discussion about food insecurity, how it manifests itself locally, and how it is linked to health, education, and housing.
Leadership teacher Mike Amoroso had a slightly different outlook. “I’m not the one to try and train teenagers… to worry about food insecurity because I feel like you’re only a kid once and that should be the least of your worries,” he said.
However, I think the more comprehensive, education-based approach would be a little more sensitive to our own peers that are food insecure. M-A is a microcosm of the inequalities that exist in our community; 34.5 percent of M-A students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Even if its Spotify streams are raising money, I don’t think that satiric 80s rap demanding “Give me food!” is the best way to show solidarity to the significant portion of our student body that experiences food insecurity every day.
Through the barrage of encouragement to meet M-A’s goal of 250,000 pounds of food, we’ve diluted the true purpose of the canned food drive: giving back to the community and helping our neighbors and classmates. It shouldn’t be about pounds of food raised, it should be about building connections and lasting solutions. I do not doubt Leadership’s intentions at all in serving our community, but in disseminating the message to the student body it has become more like a game than addressing a serious issue. Although making service fun and enticing is important if we want to get the school engaged, it should not be at the price of minimizing the gravity of food insecurity.
I realize that canned food drives are not meant to be a comprehensive solution to poverty, but if we can put aside our pride in M-A’s canned food drive for one second, I would ask: is the way we are approaching food insecurity the best it can be?
Maybe it is unrealistic to expect high schoolers to consider the multifaceted nature of poverty and hunger. But maybe our school would be a better place if we did.
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