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McLean High School students collect thousands of pounds of food to help feed local community

Student volunteers drop off donated food at the Arlington Food Assistance Center (courtesy Teens for Food Banks)

A few teenagers can’t solve world hunger on their own, but some McLean High School students are doing their part to at least make a difference on a local level.

Steven Guo and Rehan Marshall started organizing food drives in June 2020 after seeing news reports about the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic downturn pushing more people to seek food assistance.

“Not enough donations were going to food banks, so many food banks around the nation were running dangerously low on supplies,” said Guo, who was a sophomore at the time. “We saw this and didn’t want it to happen locally.”

Over the past 18 months, the two students’ effort has grown into the nonprofit Teens for Food Banks, which now boasts about 50 members and remains entirely student-run.

The organization has collected 7,793 pounds of food with 17 food drives held every month since June 6, 2020. The most recent campaign concluded last weekend and brought in 328 pounds, according to Guo.

With past events ranging from McLean and Falls Church to Centreville and Arlington County, Teen for Food Banks operates differently from a traditional food drive, where people bring donations to a designated site.

Instead, the nonprofit follows a model similar to Food for Neighbors’ Red Bag Program. First, volunteers distribute flyers throughout a chosen neighborhood. Then, they return the following week to pick up the food and drop it off at a food bank.

So far, the food drives have benefited Share of McLean, which runs a food pantry out of McLean Baptist Church, and the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), which serves Arlington County.

“The TeensforFoodBanks group is a wonderful group of teenagers,” AFAC Associate Director of Communications Jeremiah Huston said by email. “We are always amazed to see teenagers take it upon themselves to do great things in our community. They are very self sufficient and self motivated.”

Teens for Food Banks has given AFAC about 2,000 pounds of food, according to Huston.

Guo says organizing the food drives involved “a lot of trial and error,” with navigating COVID-19 safety protocols as the top challenge. Initially, the entire process was contact-free: students picked up food without ever meeting the donors and only saw their fellow volunteers at drop-off time.

However, for Guo, the logistical demands of Teens for Food Banks have been outweighed by an “outpouring” of community support and his neighbors’ generosity. For the last food drive, one family contributed two boxes of food that he estimates weighed 60 to 80 pounds.

“These acts of kindness, especially during COVID, during a very rough year for everyone, it was very inspiring,” Guo said. “I’m also just glad to know I was able to have an impact on the community.”

Now, he hopes to empower other students to get involved in their community.

Teens for Food Banks plans to expand by helping students at other schools start their own branches. Guo says each branch could organize activities to suit the needs of their neighborhood.

“We’re Teens for Food Banks. We’re not Teens for Food Drives,” he said. “As long as we’re just assisting food banks, I think anything could work. That goes for things from…helping food banks sort, or just doing anything else that food banks need.”

Now seniors, Guo and Marshall have also been discussing how to keep the nonprofit’s work going after its current leadership team graduates in the summer.

For organizations like AFAC, any bit of support helps, especially as the pandemic drags on.

At the height of the pandemic, the nonprofit saw a 50% increase in referrals of families in need of food. Demand has dropped since then, but AFAC is still seeing more families than it was at this time of the year prior to the pandemic, according to Huston.

While strong advance planning and good relationships with vendors ensures that the pantry never risks running out of food, AFAC has encountered the same supply chain issues and inflated prices that have slammed food banks across the country.

Huston says the center typically purchases 60% of the food it distributes, allowing it to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, frozen protein, and other items that can’t be donated. Prices have gone up on all of those goods.

On top of that, the need for food assistance generally increases during the winter holidays.

“The holiday season is when we see more families come to our doors for food assistance, so the work that [Teens for Food Banks does] is very helpful to us,” Huston said.

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