This story originally appeared in the November-December 2018 issue of Scouting magazine
It’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and Samuel Wynn is spending the morning riding around a St. Louis neighborhood in a truck picking up bags of donated food.
Some are so heavy that they take two boys to lift.
“People put in a lot of metal canned goods and other food for us Scouts to pick up,” says Samuel, 11, a Tenderfoot Scout in Troop 51.
After being gathered from residents’ porches and doorsteps by Greater St. Louis Area Council Scouts, Cub Scouts, Venturers and Explorers, donations are taken to local firehouses and food pantries. Scouts sort and box food items before sending them on to the St. Louis Area Foodbank, a nonprofit food distribution center. Hundreds of local food pantries receive the donations. After that, they’re picked up by some of the nearly 400,000 people whom the food bank network serves in Missouri and Illinois.
Despite the physically demanding work, Samuel has participated in Scouting for Food every year for the last four years since he was a Cub Scout. He looks forward to this giant service project every November.
“It feels good, because you’re helping somebody,” he says.
Scouting for Food began in St. Louis in 1985 as a council-wide service project. It became a national BSA program in 1988. Today, many councils across the country participate, collectively gathering hundreds of thousands of pounds of shelf-stable goods for food-disadvantaged residents of their local communities.
The dates for Scouting for Food vary by council. In many councils, like the one in St. Louis, the drive takes place in November.
The Scouting for Food effort in St. Louis was the first, and it’s still the largest.
“It’s very significant,” says Laura Morgan, manager of the food pantry at Northside Seventh-day Adventist Church in St. Louis. “To me, it’s a great and wonderful thing.”
Scouts agree with Morgan’s assessment.
“I really like doing the food pickup. It helps out people in need,” says Adin Millard, a 13-year-old Star Scout in Troop 380 of Fort Smith, Ark. Adin has participated in the program for seven years as a member of the Westark Area Council.
Adults are fans of Scouting for Food, too, in no small part because of the appreciation expressed by the people and organizations it benefits.
“I get thank-you notes in by the dozen from these pantries,” says Suzie Redington, activities director for the Greater St. Louis Area Council. “Everyone is so grateful for it. For some food pantries, Scouting for Food keeps their shelves stocked for up to three to four months.”
Michael Hennies first got involved with the annual food drive as a Scout with his troop based in Mankato, Minn. He participated regularly on his way toward becoming an Eagle Scout. Now he’s the Cubmaster of Pack 214 of St. Louis.
“The Scouting for Food drive, I’d say, basically is the cornerstone activity of our pack from a service standpoint,” Hennies says. “It’s a big deal. In St. Louis, one in three people fall underneath the poverty line.”
Perhaps the biggest reason adults love Scouting for Food is that their Scouts love it so much.
“When I was a Cubmaster, I’d ask the kids at the end of the year what their favorite activity was,” says Tim Redmond, Scoutmaster of Troop 51 in St. Louis and director of the Scouting for Food project in the council’s Thunderbird District. “You’d think it would be Pinewood Derby or something like that, but it was always Scouting for Food. They get it. They understand what it’s for.”
Dylan Stokes, an Arrow of Light Cub Scout in Pack 214 of St. Louis, offers powerful evidence.
“I look forward to Scouting for Food every year, because we want to help other people,” he says.
How It’s Made
Scouting for Food is much more than two weekends of service. It requires a big investment of time, effort and money. Planning for the next year’s drive starts right after the previous one ends. By May, Greater St. Louis Area Council activities director Redington is writing letters to partners. About then, district Scouting for Food directors are beginning to allocate service areas to individual units.
On the financial side, the St. Louis council pays $16,000 for boxes to transport collected items. An anonymous benefactor supplies more than a million plastic bags used to collect food. Sunset Transportation donates trucks and drivers to move tons of food from firehouses to the food bank. MERS Missouri Goodwill Industries provides advertising and collects donations from households up to a week after the scheduled pickup date.
Distributing bags and boxes to Scout units and collection sites, coordinating with partners, raising awareness through marketing and myriad other tasks occupy much of the intervening year. The culmination of it all is pickup day.
“As far as council staff, it’s an all-hands-on-deck day,” Redington says. “Every council person has a hand in it.”
Councils tend to do Scouting for Food drives their own way. Each variant suits a council’s individual situation. California’s Orange County Council has participated in the food drive since the 1980s, says Will Abbott, who heads up the program for his council.
Orange County Scouts collaborate with other youth-serving organizations to distribute bags or door hangers a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
The next weekend, the Orange County Scouts and other volunteers return to pick up the food and take the bags to Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. A local grocery store helps by placing barrels to collect donations, which Scouts pick up for delivery to the food bank. The combination yielded more than 52,000 pounds of food in 2016.
The Westark Area Council in Arkansas holds its drive in February. Scouts there follow the pattern of distributing bags throughout the council area, then returning the following weekend to collect donated items and take them to collection centers, where they are sorted, boxed and delivered to food pantries.
Local grocer Harps Food Stores supplies the Westark food collection bags and gives flyers to shoppers during the week before collection. A local TV station, KFSM 5NEWS, helps with promotion. On collection day, Scouts stationed at grocery stores hand donation bags to shoppers as they enter.
The grocer began assisting the council three years ago and has enabled it to double its collections from around 30,000 pounds to more than 60,000, assistant Scout executive Christian Swaim says.
“Having the grocery store partner creates more enthusiasm for the project,” says Swaim. “It’s not just kids going to doors. It’s partnering with a local business. And they’re even in the smallest towns that we serve.”
Making It Work
Scouting for Food is the sort of project that seems to please everyone associated with it. However, veterans of the initiative say there are some things to keep in mind for the drive to have maximum impact.
One big reminder: Keep it meaningful to participants. One way to do that is to show Scouts the physical evidence as well as the personal impact of what they’re doing.
Redmond, the St. Louis Scout volunteer, recalls taking a group of Cub Scouts to a food pantry to see what they’d helped collect.
“There was a wall of boxes,” he says. “They looked in there and said, ‘Wow, we did that!’ It really sinks in.”
Food Drive Do’s and Don’ts
Let people know what to donate — canned and shelf-stable foods but no perishables or glass.
Get community partners. Grocers, transportation companies, media outlets and other organizations can provide invaluable assistance with logistics, publicity and more.
Consider having one person in charge of the annual campaign. (If that person is you, don’t try to do it all yourself.)
Consider doing it at Thanksgiving, when the spirit of giving and food needs are high. (Successful drives occur from November to March, and many food pantries say their greatest need is in January and February.)
Be sure Scouts and other volunteers have enough work to keep them busy. (But not too much work. And try to arrange things so they don’t stay too late on collection day.)
Offer a special patch to participants.
Keep it local. From food-donating households to Scouts and Scouters, everyone appreciates that the food will nourish local residents.
Fail to pick up sacks of donated food. If possible, line up a drop-off location after collection day or provide a phone number or email for people to contact if their donation was missed.
Let Scouts run through residents’ yards.
Ignore safety. Minimize street crossing by having Scouts work one side of the block at a time.
Assume good weather. Food-drive volunteers might labor in cold, wind, rain, snow and/or ice.
Be afraid to start small. If a council is not doing the food drive now, consider starting in one district and expanding.
Photographs by W. Garth Dowling