What I love about first graders is they aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions. One day, while we were talking about plants as a food source, a girl asked, “Why do some people not have enough food and other people have lots?”

This led us to other questions of fairness, like why some people don’t have a place to live. As a former community activist, I thought about this classroom conversation often, and when I noticed a call for volunteers for an annual Thanksgiving dinner for homeless and low-income people at a church downtown, I knew it was time for our class to take action.

I taught my students at the Jackson Street School in Northampton, Massachusetts, a quote from the Dalai Lama, “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” I chose the act of piemaking.

We decided to bake pumpkin pies, ask a bakery to donate the boxes, and carry our treats downtown on the public bus. First, we would go to City Hall to meet with the mayor. Then we’d walk down the block to the church, deliver the pies and cookies, and help set up the hall for the dinner before catching the bus back to school.

I had never done anything like this before, but it seemed like a reasonable idea.

One might argue that the realities of homelessness, poverty, and hunger are too much for young learners. I haven’t found that to be the case.

I choose to bring activism into my teaching because I believe young children are capable of amazing things, far more than is usually expected of them. They can learn to think critically, analyze data, and make inquiry as active citizens in their communities. Young children understand fairness and are deeply moved and highly motivated by the recognition of injustice.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my students mashed pumpkins, measured sugar, and sprinkled cinnamon, (with some help from family volunteers). They used their math skills to time the baking and their creativity to decorate the tops.

In all, we made a dozen pumpkin pies and several batches of cookies. Afterwards, we munched on roasted pumpkin seeds.

As we prepared to leave for the day, we heard a rumor it might snow. My students asked if we would still go. I answered, “Of course. People are still hungry even if it snows. We promised to bring our pies and set up for that dinner.” But then I wasn’t counting on more than a foot of snow.

“A Promise is a Promise”

When I woke up the next morning, school had been cancelled. As I was eating breakfast, glumly thinking about our pies locked up at school, the phone rang. It was a parent. “I told Jack it’s a snow day,” said Jack’s mother, Ann, “but he’s insisting he has to go to school anyway to deliver those pies. He keeps saying ‘A promise is a promise.’”

Sometimes, the ability of first graders to quote their teacher almost verbatim is scary. I took a deep breath and called my principal. She agreed to open the school after the roads had been plowed to liberate the pies.

Then Ann and I called the whole class list to find out who was up for a “family field trip.” Later that morning, a caravan bearing pies, cookies, and 25 children snaked its way through the snowy streets to City Hall.

Meeting with the Mayor

The mayor of Northampton, Clare Higgins, thanked the children for their hard work and determination. Afterwards, Rebecca Story, an advocate for the homeless, introduced herself and led an open discussion with my young students about homelessness.

My student Sadie raised her hand and said, “I think it’s unfair that some people don’t have homes.” Ms. Story then told us some of the reasons people become homeless, how working a minimum wage job without health benefits or reliable transportation creates a fragile existence that can easily unravel. She also described some of the services for homeless families and adults in Northampton.

When students asked her what life was like for homeless people and what they could do to help, she told them very specific things they could collect, items like lip balm and hand lotion, adult socks and laundry detergent.

Ms. Story described how homeless people could trade in a pair of dirty, wet socks for a pair of clean, dry socks each night at the shelter. She also explained how people could use washers and dryers for free but needed laundry detergent. The kids listened with rapt attention.

The Littlest Volunteers 

After our visit to City Hall, we all bundled up to carry our pies to the church. I looked over my shoulder and saw this long trail of brightly booted children, proudly and seriously carrying boxes of pies and tins of cookies, stretching down the slippery steps of City Hall, across the slushy crosswalk and up the block.

When we reached the site of the dinner, we rolled up our sleeves as the bemused volunteer coordinator explained the task at hand to this large crew of small helpers. They nodded with looks of complete understanding and took off like a swarm of ants to perform their allotted tasks.

The volunteer coordinator was surprised by their efficiency and asked how they set tables and stacked plates so quickly. Sadie rolled up her sleeve to show her skinny arm and said, “Because we’re powerful!”

Through helping others, my students were beginning to realize their own strength.

What Kids Can Do

After our Thanksgiving effort, my students were eager to do more. Around the holiday season, our school has a Giving Tree project. Families bring in non-perishable food items and winter clothes and leave them beneath the tree. Before the December vacation, our principal or a parent volunteer usually loads all the items and takes them to the Northampton Survival Center.

Looking to get involved, my students invited the director of the Survival Center to meet with them. When they learned about the need for high-protein food donations, such as peanut butter, tuna fish, and beans, they set to work making posters: “The Giving Tree needs peanut butter!” and “Please donate lip balm and hand lotion.”

The donations began to pour in. Each week my students went to the Giving Tree for math and language arts activities. They categorized, inventoried, weighed, and graphed the donations, using their math skills for authentic purposes. They wrote reports for the newsletter and made announcements about the drive’s progress. They learned a lot about nutrition and used criteria to sort the items that came in.

When the day to make the delivery came, my students used what they’d learned about simple machines to assemble a convoy of garden carts, baby strollers, bike trailers, wheelbarrows, and wagons. Over snow and ice they pushed and pulled hundreds of pounds of food and warm clothing about a mile to deliver it to the Survival Center.

Rethinking Food Drives

When I was a child growing up in suburban Long Island, there were school food drives each holiday season “to help poor people.” I always wondered who those poor people were and where they lived, not quite understanding that my own family of eight, and later 10, was, if not poor, certainly struggling.

In my family, we were not allowed to use the term “poor people.” My mother taught us early on to use the phrase “those less fortunate than ourselves at this time.” It didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but we used it with relish as we sorted through bags of hand-me-down clothes. We would bag up the things that did not fit us and say proudly, “These clothes are for those less fortunate than ourselves at this time!”

The school food drive, as I remember it, consisted of bringing in canned food our mothers had bought. Too often, that is still the case. For example, some food drives involve a competition between classrooms to collect the largest number of cans, which really reflects how much disposable income, more than how much concern, the families of that class have. Food is gathered but the children miss out on an important learning opportunity.

While well meaning, an ill-planned drive may inadvertently be reinforcing stereotypes about poor people, oversimplifying the problem and the solution, and further stigmatizing low-income children in the school.

Food drives can be a developmentally appropriate activity for children when used as a vehicle to challenge stereotypes, teach about the complex causes of poverty, introduce local activists who are meeting needs and working on long-term solutions. It can also empower children to take responsibility in their community and remove the stigma of poverty.

In teaching my class that poverty is not a permanent or generic condition, I try to teach the same sense of dignity and respect my mother conveyed when teaching us compassion for those “less fortunate than ourselves at this time.”

My 6-year-old students had respectfully learned more about the conditions of poverty in our own community. They had worked hard, collecting and volunteering, not out of pity but out of understanding and empathy. They learned to transform their compassion into action.