A school food drive is a good way to introduce the idea of community service to students. While running a food drive is a relatively straightforward endeavor, there are several ways to make your collection more successful and to make sure students get more out of it.

Choose a Date

The traditional time to run a food drive is during the holiday season. However, because many community organizations do this, the need is typically greater at other times of the year. By March and often earlier, pantries typically will have used up the supplies donated during the holidays. Before settling on a date, check with your local food pantry to find out whether there’s a time when need is greatest that fits your school calendar.

What To Collect

From the food pantry’s point of view, not all food is created equal. It’s especially important to collect food with higher nutritional value. Canned protein such as tuna, salmon, and chicken is especially helpful. Other key items include tomato sauce, pasta, boxed meals (such as macaroni and cheese), peanut butter, canned or dried beans, canned fruits and vegetables, and cereals such as oatmeal. Check with the food pantry to learn their current needs. When you announce your food drive, don’t just ask for “any nonperishable item.” Include a list of the most needed foods.

Consider Cash

While food pantries appreciate food donations, cash gives them the most flexibility to fulfill their specific needs. Often, food pantries can acquire needed items at lower cost because they are very targeted in what they are shopping for. Some food organizations say they can buy 2.5 pounds of food with each dollar donated. If possible, include the option in your food drive for families to send a check. Or sell food to buy food by holding a bake sale, for instance.

Set a Goal

You’ll build more excitement around your food drive if you set a goal and update your school community daily on how you’re proceeding toward your goal. One creative school parked a school bus in front of the school and challenged students to fill it with food. Having grades or classrooms compete to donate the most food can increase donations significantly. Another common but effective method is to paint a donations “thermometer” on poster board or plywood and post it in front of the school or in the lobby.

Get Kids Involved From the Start

Kids can help organize and run a school food drive. The more involved they are, the more they will get out of it. They can help collect, count, and sort donations, make posters, and even deliver the donations to the local food pantry. Having kids volunteer at the pantry or soup kitchen can also be powerful.

Name Your Food Drive

Give your drive its own identity with a catchy name—“Cans To Can Hunger,” for example, or “Food From the Heart” for a Valentine’s Day drive. Incorporate your school name into your drive, such as “Franklin Food Frenzy” or “Smith School Fights Hunger.” This is even more important if you want to make your drive into an annual tradition.

Use Themes To Promote Donations

Create a theme for each day of your food drive and decorate your collection points accordingly. For example, on “soup day,” decorate boxes or barrels to look like soup cauldrons and ask for donations of canned and instant soup. You might make another day “baby and infant day” and have kids bring in their own baby pictures to share along with formula and baby food and even diapers.

Fill Something Up

Get hold of something big, like a school bus, and challenge families to fill it with food. Or use other types of containers that relate to your food drive. Borrow shopping carts from a local supermarket and park those throughout your school. Decorate a refrigerator box to look like a refrigerator.

Campaign for Food

Schedule your food drive to coincide with a local election day. Place collection boxes at the polls and enlist volunteers to hold picket signs reminding people to “Cast a Can” when they cast their vote.

Hold a Raffle

Pair a raffle with your food drive. Issue a raffle ticket for each food item that is donated. At the end of the drive, hold a drawing for a prize.

Think 100

Link your food drive to the 100th day of school. Ask each classroom to bring in 100 items to donate. Turn it into a mini math lesson. Visit each classroom and ask the students how many items each person must bring in to equal 100. Ask them how many items you’ll collect in total if every classroom brings in 100 items.

Poster Prowess

Hold a food drive poster contest. Hang submissions throughout your school. Award gift cards to the winners.