According to the USDA, hunger in the United States has increased for the fourth straight year. In 2004, more than 36 million Americans -- including 13 million children -- lived with hunger or on the brink of hunger.
But this fall, teens from 23 high schools in the Quad-City area of western Illinois and eastern Iowa led one of the largest food drives in the nation in an attempt to end hunger.
The once-empty warehouse now sits filled to the rafters with cans of stew, tuna fish and cereal. It took hundreds of willing hands and strong backs two days to unload the food from dozens of vans. But the volunteers knew it would be feeding struggling families, shut-ins, the disabled, the homeless and the down-and-out throughout the year. That made their hard work easier.
All this food -- 1,040,315 pounds of it -- was collected, boxed and delivered solely by teenagers and their high school advisors in six weeks. It is one of the largest independent food drives in the nation, and teenagers have driven its growth, popularity and success for the past 20 years.
Each one of the students has their own tale of why they get involved. Most say it is best thing they do in their high school career, and others say it has changed their perspective on volunteerism forever.
"Helping others is one of those feelings that make you want to live life," says Ashley Sevigny, 17, of Bettendorf. "People in the Quad-Cities would go hungry every day if it wasn't for the Student Hunger Drive. It is just an amazing thing that high schools all over our area could make such a huge difference in the lives of people in our community."
Beginning in early October, students from public, parochial and alternative high schools rev up their school spirit with funky and fun activities.
They hold dodgeball tournaments and Halloween parties, design cookbooks and host pie-eating contests to bring in the crowds -- who donate food, or else money to buy the canned goods. Administrators and teachers get involved, too, with their own challenges and games.
"We were worried this year that the numbers would be way down because of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami," said Pete Pohlmann, the local auto dealer who founded the drive in 1986. "But the kids proved us all wrong. They even got us back over the 1 million-pound mark again after it dropped last year."
Since its inception 20 years ago, the Student Hunger Drive has collected 9,559,793 pounds of food valued at more than $19 million. The food is distributed by the River Bend Foodbank in Moline, Ill., to 120 pantries and shelters in four counties.
In comparison to this year's 1 million-pound take, the local postal carriers' food drive brings in 80,000 pounds while the Boy Scouts gather up 6,000 pounds. The Student Hunger Drive accounts for 25 percent of the food bank's food each year. Locally, 18 percent of children live below the poverty level, and 40 percent of all food pantry recipients are children.
"It is a very humbling feeling for me personally to know that others share my passion for helping the less fortunate," said Tom Laughlin, executive director of River Bend. Laughlin opened the food bank 23 years ago and is amazed each year by the enthusiasm of the students. "They get it. The teens know hunger is a problem, and they know that by collecting one can of food, they can positively impact a needy person."
River Bend is a member of Second Harvest, the largest domestic hunger relief organization. "We deal with 200 food banks in our network, and move over 2 billion tons of food each year," said Ross Fraser, media relations manager for the Second Harvest headquarters in Chicago. "We work mostly with food donated from food manufacturers and grocery store chains. But for students to gather that much food each year is a great benefit for those involved and for their community."
The students come from all religions, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. The smallest of the schools enrolls only seven students, while the largest boasts 2,230 students. But the goal remains the same for all of them -- raise the most food with the best and most creative ideas.
The competition is based on how many pounds per student the school delivers, and cash prizes up to $2,500 are given in several categories. Most of the time, the money goes to help buy holiday gifts and clothing for disadvantaged children.
"Everyone gets involved. It always amazes me that students who do not get involved in anything will get involved with the Student Hunger Drive," said Kathlynn Price, math teacher and advisor at Davenport West High School. "I have grown just as much as my students by being a part of the drive. Helping the community makes my students realize that there are people in our community that do not have basic necessities. It makes them more appreciative of what they have, and the opportunities they are given."
Hannah Campbell, a student at Davenport's Central High School, has participated three years with the hunger drive. "We see this warehouse empty when we come here," she said. "Six weeks later, it is almost filled. I'm lucky because my family can go to the grocery store anytime we want and not think about it. The Student Hunger Drive puts things into perspective for me."
"I am just blown away by it all," said Pohlmann. "The Student Hunger Drive is one of the things in my life that has been the most important outside of my family."
Pohlmann is president of Lujack's Northpark Auto Plaza car dealership in Davenport. In 1986, Pohlmann saw how people in the area were struggling as factories and other businesses closed down. He and his managers decided to use the advertising money for November 1986 to help feed families. They called some area high schools to get the kids involved.
"There was enthusiasm right off the bat. No one has ever thought it was a bad idea," he said. At the end of the first year, his dealership's service department was half-filled with boxes of food. The first campaign collected merely 29,000 pounds.
Lujack employees ran the drive for eight years until it just got to be too much. "We weren't selling any cars in the first part of November because all we were doing was working on the Student Hunger Drive." So, he turned to his wife, Mary Pohlmann, and her best friend, Sandy St. Clair.
"The drive is a success because there is no downside. It's children helping children," Mary said. The two took over the drive in 1993, turned it into a non-profit organization and began getting corporate sponsors to pay for expenses, events, insurance, marketing and other incidentals.
Mary remembers attending a Hunger Drive event at one of the schools. A teacher told her that it was hard sometimes to motivate some of the students to collect food because many of those kids at that school were recipients of the food.
Memories of the hard work and commitment linger for years for many students. Ryan Langtimm, a senior at Bettendorf, Iowa, High School, had never thought about hunger in the Quad-Cities until he got involved with the drive. "I never realized it was such a big problem. I now have a new appreciation for the food my parents put on the table, and I am more willing to help others out when they need it."
When Charles Modiano, 35, watched the images repeat over and over on his TV of three young black men looting stores in New Orleans, he says he felt jarred. The images just didn't match up with the realities of the young people he'd seen during his time in Houston, Texas, at the Astrodome where many were working around-the-clock on behalf of evacuees and their families.
And he felt a little angry.
He's quickly turned that anger into energy as he works to build a coalition to develop a nationwide "Hurricane YOUTH" non-profit organization. He about his goal of supporting and highlighting youth volunteer efforts in the aftermath of the disaster:
What role did youth volunteers play after Hurricane Katrina?
Well, I had been in Houston working with a foster youth organization when everything happened in New Orleans and Mississippi. In the aftermath of Katrina, there was a flow of individuals coming down to the AstrodomeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ What struck me was that young people were some of the first ones there. They were putting the cots down; they were helping to register evacuees and to get people organized. It was all happening amidst the chaos. This was a story that, to my knowledge, wasn't really being told.
Can you explain the idea behind "Hurricane YOUTH"?
It [will be a non-profit] to assist youth-led efforts in response to Katrina, and to get their stories toldÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ We want to help organize informal efforts and make them more formal effortsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Is "Hurricane YOUTH" meant to be an ongoing effort?
Since the devastation wrought on America by Katrina is of an incomparable scale with regards to previous disasters or wars on American soil since the Civil War, it's important that the mission stay solely focused on Katrina's aftermath, which will take years to recover from. However, the long-term leadership benefits that all involved youth will receive will most certainly last a lifetime. The long-term goal is that this once-in-a-lifetime youth leadership experience manifest itself in greater independent youth-led community service initiatives beyond Katrina.
What's the progress been so far?
One [project that we want to be part] of the initiative is called "Survivors with a Mission," which is made up of youth and young adults who grew up in the foster care system in Houston, Texas. The group's mission is to empower youth and young adults of today, and shape the leaders of tomorrow, by uniting communities, allies, and friends. Members plan to provide support services to youth in Houston high schools that are survivors of the tragic hurricane. They want to share some of their history of growing up in foster care and how they can empathize and relate to losing everything including family, friends, clothing, and all of what of what you see as stable, in a matter of hours.
Another is Project SAVE, which stands for Southeast Arkansas Volunteer Efforts. The rural area has received over 1,500 evacuees. What has been happening over there is that young people are collecting and distributing clothes, holding coin drives, helping with Internet job searches, providing peer tutoring for kids who missed weeks of school. There are youth ambassadors at each school to acclimate student evacuees.
Those are the first two sites that are organized [that we want to support] and there are many others that are in the embryonic stages.
Are you looking for funding to advance your idea?
Yes, I've put my youth consulting business on hold, and we're working hard to get this project off the ground. I'm hearing a buzz, but it hasn't happened formally yet. We're going to become a non-profit and pitch foundations soonÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Why is it important for you to support kids who are taking action?
Youth have always been at the forefront of every social change in AmericaÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ It's happening again right now during this time of national crisis. The story is not being told. We want to help tell their story. We're hoping that highlighting images of youth taking the lead on helping with the aftermath of the hurricane may help inspire more people.