Kids Helping Kids: How School Food Pantries are Fighting Food Insecurity

Welcome to the HealthMPowers Champion Series! Champions are advocates who are working towards advancing health equity, food and nutrition access, and mental wellness.​ 

“Why can’t we take the [unopened] food that students throw away during breakfast and lunch and give it to that family, so those little boys don’t go hungry?”

Head and shoulders photo of Carla Hardward, a white woman wearing a white sweater with a green shell underneath.
Carla Harward, CEO Helping Hands Ending Hunger

Carla Harward’s daughter, Sophie, asked a simple yet profound question after seeing two of her classmates go hungry at lunch. This moment served as the catalyst for Carla to launch Helping Hands Ending Hunger, a Georgia-based nonprofit. Their mission: to empower students to rescue uneaten food from school meals and join hands with their communities to nurture food insecure families. 

Driven by empathy, Carla, a retired lawyer embarked on a mission to dismantle barriers to accessing uneaten cafeteria food. Despite initial challenges, she pioneered a solution that would not only rescue surplus food but also nurture a sense of community responsibility among students. 

“I started researching the issue and it came down to a provision in the Food Service Code that applies to every school cafeteria in the nation,” said Carla. “In that code, there was a single provision that says that once served to a student, food can’t be re-served for human consumption. It was the re-service of food that was the hurdle to being able to access uneaten food.” 

“When I looked at that language, my legal training kicked in and I thought, that’s not really what it means. We know that USDA encourages reducing food waste in cafeterias through the school lunch program. Donations of food are sanctioned by the USDA as part of the process. So why don’t we just create a food donation program and operate outside of the Food Service Code?” 

The idea: establish student-led school food pantries. Carla collaborated with officials from the Georgia Departments of Education and Public Health to create a standardized system ensuring the safety and security required for delivering food to children and families in need. Under this program, both staff and students would receive training in safety protocols to effectively organize, sort, and distribute food. This encompassed not only rescued dry packaged items but also perishables like milk, cheese, yogurt, juices, and other items needing refrigeration for safe consumption. 

She persuaded the leadership at her daughter’s school to let her pilot the program. Following that successful pilot, other schools expressed interest in creating their own school pantries and Helping Hands Ending Hunger was created. 

Helping Hands Ending Hunger has evolved into a movement where children and youth become catalysts for change. Through the Kids Helping Kids initiative, young leaders emerged, dismantling stigmas surrounding food insecurity and fostering empathy within their schools and communities. 

“One thing that people say about our program is that it’s unique in that we engage kids. I looked at programs that were already in place to address food waste and food insecurity and saw that some programs have a lot of obstacles that make it harder to make a large impact. One example is overcoming the stigma around asking for help. Some families are ashamed to reach out for help or to utilize resources.” 
 
“If I’m a child and I’m a leader in this program, I’m showing everyone that food’s not trash, and if you’re hungry, I can help you by giving you my apple or my milk. Children can be our catalyst for that change. It will no longer be something that’s shameful, it will just be a part of how kids deal with each other. And then they will know how to deal with each other as adults.” 

Another obstacle that Helping Hands Ending Hunger eliminates is the need for transportation to reach community food pantries. 

“With school pantries, the kids become the transportation. They can take food boxes home on the bus and every family can have food every weekend if they want it. We also remove obstacles caused by filling out excessive paperwork or proof of income, allowing families to have some stake and dignity to tell us if they need food.” 

Students involved in running the pantries build entrepreneurial skills focusing on project management, marketing and working with peers.  

The impact has been significant:

Beyond addressing the immediate need of hunger, Carla recognizes the transformative power of education. They are focusing on the wider need of nutrition and health and encourage building healthier habits along the way.  

“Our work with HealthMPowers is important because we have very similar missions to address nutrition, exercise, and building healthy habits for better outcomes for the families we serve.” 

Heather Rice, a Project Director at HealthMPowers, shares this sentiment. She played a crucial role in bringing both organizations together in partnership. 

“It seemed like a perfect match,” said Heather. “HealthMPowers is in schools implementing nutrition and physical education programs that gives children and youth the resources they need to build healthy habits that will last into adulthood. Our partnership with Helping Hands Ending Hunger allows us to support our schools with the training and supplies they need to create a pantry.” 

The future partnership looks bright for Helping Hands Ending Hunger and HealthMPowers. “This partnership with Helping Hands is one of our most valuable relationships,” said Jennifer L. Owens, CEO of HealthMPowers. “We look forward to expanding our work together and making nutritious food more accessible and giving children and youth leadership opportunities at the same time.” 

If you are a HealthMPowers school or organization and would like to discuss a partnership, please email Heather Rice. To learn more about Helping Hands Ending Hunger, visit their website and follow Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Author

  • Kristy Bond

    Kristy Bond, MPH, spearheads all aspects of HealthMPowers’ marketing initiatives. She takes the responsibility of crafting messages to influence outcomes very seriously and approaches her work with integrity and passion. Her previous experience includes marketing and PR roles in various sectors, including the executive branch of state government, public safety, healthcare and a presidential library and museum. In her spare time, she enjoys reading absolutely everything, off-the-beaten-path adventures, and loving on her nieces and nephews.