One Hillsboro High School senior has been working hard this school year to make sure that none of her classmates go hungry.
Erin Kistner, who is active in the school’s FFA program as well as the Starr Shooters 4-H Club, attended a hunger summit last October through the 4-H program.
“The summit focused on all ages and how they were in need,” Kistner said. “At the end, everyone had to write down one idea to try out when they got home.”
She immediately thought of doing something at her high school, because she felt like teenagers were often missed in some of the programs offered.
As chance would have it, she was in a sociology class where students were assigned to give a survey to their fellow classmates. Kistner chose an anonymous survey on whether or not students were hungry when they weren’t at school.
She was shocked to find that 25 percent of students responded that they were.
“I feel like that’s a really big number, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.
Kistner met with Elisha Hughes, who serves as the 4-H program coordinator at the University of Illinois Extension office in Hillsboro.
“I am just so proud of her,” Hughes said. “She came to me with this idea and she’s just been really passionate about it. She does want to make a difference.”
Kistner and Hughes got approval to take the idea to the school staff, and started a weekend backpack food program with donations the first week of November.
Since then, she has provided 1,187 meals to her fellow Hiltopper students.
Kistner and Hughes wrote some grants to cover the cost of the food, but Kistner said most of the money came locally. She visited area clubs and organizations who pledged monetary donations as well as food contributions. In addition, Kistner met with Wendy Gregg, manager of the Dollar General in Schram City. They ask each customer who checks out if they would like to purchase a $1 item for the program, and have already donated more than $2,000 worth of food since the start.
“Every three days, they give me a cart full of food,” Kistner said.
When school was in session, Kistner packed the bags each week, and left them in the IS room, which is a place with low student traffic. She also passed out slips of paper for teachers to give out to students who might be in need.
“Ironically, the kids haven’t really cared that much if other kids know,” she said. “And I’m glad they felt comfortable.”
She said that she packed the bags, which included two meals, breakfast, a fruit, vegetable, a snack and a drink, and the bags were made to be put into student backpacks. Hughes said they kept in mind that some students might not have any way to heat up any food and tried to plan accordingly.
“She really thought this all through,” Hughes said. “It’s such a huge need, and she has been willing and has the drive to do it.”
The first week, ten high school students took home backpacks. The next week it was 16. Then 20, and growing to nearly 30 each week before school was released in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic hasn’t stopped me at all,” Kistner said. “It’s a great program, and the kids need it.”
She now packs bags from the Extension office with five meals, snacks and veggies and delivers them to the bus garage where they are taken to students in the district. Bus drivers tell her if she needs to make more bags up each week.
Hughes said that Kistner will be recognized for her efforts by the state 4-H program.
And even though Kistner will be in college next fall, she has convinced the school to continue to offer the program next year and found a couple of girls to take it over.
“I am excited it will continue at Hillsboro High School,” she said. “And I hope to keep influencing other people around the state to bring this kind of program to their schools, because it’s a need in other high schools too. Once you have the support of your community, you can really do a lot.”
For those interested in supporting the program donations of individual plastic cups of applesauce, pudding, corn and green beans, Ritz crackers, granola bars, Pop Tarts, breakfast bars, mini packs of cookies, trail mix, Cheez-Its, fruit snacks and pretzels, microwave popcorn and cups of macaroni and cheese, as well as pop top cans of ravioli, soup and chili and ready-to-eat tuna or chicken salad pouches, will be accepted at the Extension office.
For more information, contact Kistner at 217-594-7126 or the Montgomery County Extension office at 217-532-3941.