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Young People Are Fighting Hunger and Finding Purpose


The line snaked around the block on a recent Sunday afternoon as Angelenos on foot and in their cars waited to receive grocery bags brimming with squash and tomatoes, multicolored carrots and loaves of fresh-baked bread from two dozen volunteers, most of them young.

The food giveaway took place under makeshift tents set up in the parking lot of the Wood Cafe in Culver City, Calif., which has been closed for business since early in the pandemic. Demetrios Mavromichalis, its owner, teamed up with Natalie Flores, an urban farmer and educator, to use the restaurant to store and distribute quality surplus organic and seasonal produce collected from local farmers’ markets and grocery stores, as well as herb and vegetable seedlings from Ms. Flores’s gardens to help people grow their own food.

They served over a thousand people, a number that has been growing weekly since the pandemic began. Mr. Mavromichalis credits the program’s success to the “dream team” of high school and college-age volunteers.

“These amazing young kids are running the whole show,” he said. “We sit back and they just take over. They have a better idea of how to distribute the food, how to keep the line moving, how to distance people. Their energy propels it; they are not being micromanaged with adults telling them what to do.”

Mr. Mavromichalis’s 19-year-old son, Nikolaos, was recently appointed secretary of Nourish LA, the group formed to manage the enterprise.

“It’s just a thrill to see my neighbors again,” he said. “It’s not like a ‘handout of food to the needy,’’’ he said, explaining that they do not feel that they are “doing charity,” but rather sharing food with neighbors and friends. “I want this to be the coolest, most fun thing that you can do, like a party.”

Despite the upbeat spirit of the volunteers, the situation faced by many of the families that they serve remains grim. A perfect storm of job loss, rising food prices and school closings, and the loss of subsidized school meals, has resulted in “a hidden epidemic of hunger in America” said Crystal FitzSimons, a director with the Food Research and Action Center.

As of April, food insecurity in the United States had doubled over all and tripled among households with children over pre-pandemic levels, according to a report published by the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research based on data in the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey.

The institute’s director, Diane Schanzenbach, said that the latest available figures, released in the middle of July, show that things have gotten a bit worse since April.

This crisis has become palpable for 14-year-old Maccabee Veder, who volunteers weekly at the Wood Cafe. “In the cars sometimes there are little children. It’s sad to see how the pandemic has affected them and that they don’t have enough food,” she said. “Once I even recognized someone from my class.”

Maccabee’s contribution this Sunday was placing a long-stemmed flower in each food bag. She was joined by 9-year-old Kalea Jade, who said, “I don’t just give food. I help to spread happiness and kindness.”

Credit…Nikolaos Mavromichalis

Research shows that volunteering has a variety of benefits, including enhancing empathy, lowering the risk of depression, instilling a sense of purpose, and even improving one’s physical health. Of special relevance during the Covid-19 crisis, volunteering is also one of the best way to combat feelings of social isolation.

At a time of rising political polarization, reaching out to serve others can renew one’s sense of shared national identity and purpose, says the Harvard developmental psychologist Richard Weissbourd, the director of the Making Caring Common Project, an organization that promotes civic engagement in the young.

“We have a lot of Americans who are vulnerable and suffering right now,” he said. “To the extent that we are all Americans, each one of us is responsible for all of us, that’s an attitude that we want to cultivate in young people.”

Dr. Weissbourd argues that service expands one’s circle of concern beyond family and friends to “people who are different from you, who you would not ordinarily meet.” But he adds the proviso that one should serve others without condescension.

“What we worry about some with our work with high school students is that service takes the form of doing for others rather than doing with them, and it can become patronizing,” Dr. Weissbourd said. “There needs to be a reciprocal relationship where you are learning from them and receiving from them as well.”

The opportunities for these kinds of interactions have diminished at a time when social distancing requirements limit our contact with others. But the restrictions have not prevented some young people from devising indirect ways to help.

When sports were canceled at Acalanes High School in the San Francisco Bay Area because of the pandemic, Owen Estee called his friend Zach Appel to suggest that they offer lacrosse lessons to interested teens and donate their fees to the White Pony Express, a local group that delivers food to community organizations that serve the hungry. Zach thought of his grandmother, who was afraid to leave her house and needed people to go out and get her food. “I realized how many people are like that, and maybe we can help them out,” he said.

Credit…Allie Schwartz

The boys, both 15, started Lacrosse Against Hunger, which has raised over $3,000 so far. “After the pandemic, we want to get the rest of our team involved and start a lacrosse camp to continue raising money to buy food,” Owen said.

In Columbus, Ohio, Aggie Barrington, age 9, visited a homeless shelter with her mother. The child was upset to see that the people there were not joining to eat hot meals together, as they had done before the pandemic. “I said, ‘Mom, can we please help,’” Aggie recalled. Over dinner that night, the family talked it over and decided to make sack lunches and deliver them to the shelter. Aggie shared their idea in a video appeal posted on social media.

Credit…Molly Barrington

Over 500 families joined in and 12,000 lunches have been delivered to the shelter since March, an effort that is being coordinated by the Columbus-based nonprofit Seeds of Caring.

“Maybe we’re young, but we can still be powerful even though some adults think that we can’t,” Aggie said. “Kids are novices about the way the world works,” her mother, Molly Barrington, added. “But they have tremendous hearts full of passion and compassion to serve others. We adults need to recapture that.”

The future of our democracy may depend on restoring this ethic of mutual caring, says James Youniss, emeritus professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America in Washington. He participated in a 2007 study that showed that students who engaged in service projects in high school volunteered more often and voted in higher numbers later in life.

Dr. Youniss said he wished more schools had well-designed mandatory service requirements to help educate young people about the needs in their communities and instill in them a lifelong habit of becoming engaged.

“There’s something bigger than themselves out there,” he said. “It’s not just about my getting into a good college — it’s what I can be as a person, what I can contribute.”



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