The wind boomed and howled Saturday, but it didn’t deter more than 700 high school students from all over Washington state who gathered in the Kalama High School gym to help prepare 100,000 meals for needy families.
Students formed lines, surrounded by giant tubs of dried rice, beans and macaroni, taking turns pouring carefully measured cups of ingredients into meal bags that would soon go to local food banks.
The students were here as part of the annual Association of Washington Student Leaders conference, hosted this year by Mark Morris and R.A. Long high schools in Longview. The association, a division of the Association of Washington School Principals, partnered this year with the United Way of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties to organize the conference’s service project.
Grace Johnson and Sophia Konugres of Ballard High School and Amanda Yang and Maddy Turner of Ingram High School all traveled from Seattle for the three-day conference. The girls took turns funneling macaroni noodles, dried cheese, and vitamin-enriched seasoning packets into a larger meal bag. Several students at the end of their table then weighed, sealed, and labeled each package and carefully placed it in a cardboard box.
The table then let out a huge cheer – the first of many – when they filled a box.
“Each bag is a meal for a family,” Grace explained. Each package contained enough food for six people, meaning each box contained 216 meals.
According to Northwest Harvest, a Washington nonprofit food bank distributor, one in five Washingtonians relies on a food bank. “This room is going to pump out 50,000 of these bags,” Sophia said. “And there’s two sessions so there’s going to be 100,000 by the end of today.”
The meals packaged over the next three hours would later be distributed to Lower Columbia CAP, Wahkiakum Food Bank, Kalama Helping Hand, FISH of Cowlitz County and Woodland Action center, with each organization receiving 20,000 packaged meals.
“That means a lot to me, that’s just so great,” Maddy said.
The meals will have a large impact in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties: according to FISH of Cowlitz County, 26,000 individuals from more than 7,000 households received food assistance from the organization in 2015. Children under the age of 18 make up 40 percent of FISH’s food recipients.
“You guys are amazing, you guys are rockstars,” staff adviser Kelli MacCleod told a group of students as they worked.
At another table, Sophomore Jacob Hammond of Wahkiakum High School and senior Lindsay Wilson of Kalama took turns putting the finishing touches on meal bags, including tagging each with a sticker bearing the expiration date. Neither of them had participated in a service project like this before.
“My favorite part (of the conference) is this right now,” Jacob said.
Other students, like ninth grader Max Quinn from Camas, have made community service a habit.
“My family, we make lunches and go around Portland and give them to homeless people,” Max said. “We try do to it every Christmas.”
But Saturday’s project was special, with hundreds of students cheering, yelling and singing to pop music piped in to the gym.
“It’s like a big family coming together,” Max said.