AMITY — It’s a little school at a wide spot on a country road, but Perrydale High School west of Salem has a big heart. Thirty five of its 100 students are in the FFA chapter, which since 1998 has been the pivot point for a remarkable annual food drive.
It’s called Food For All, a name chosen because it matches its FFA initials and roots. Working within a network that now includes 10 small rural Oregon high schools, Perrydale students this year have helped collect 260,000 pounds of food that will be distributed to families during the holiday season.
This time of year, the school’s shop and ag class space is crammed with totes of pears, apples, turnips and more. Students flock in, even when classes were canceled because of snow, to pack bags of vegetables and fruit. They solicit contributions, arrange dropoffs and coordinate distribution with other schools and with community food banks. They operate forklifts to load trailers and travel with loads. Sometimes they see families arriving to pick up what they’ve provided.
In the process, the students themselves are transformed, says Perrydale ag teacher Ashley Richards. Even the kids who don’t necessarily stand out in the classroom adopt a different attitude when helping others, and take charge to get the job done, she says.
“You can see some of the people there,” sophomore Kirk Fairchild says. “They’re hungry.”
“It’s the heart of helping people,” sophomore Devin Cruickshank says.
Food For All was started by retired ag teacher Kirk Hutchinson – “Hutch” to everyone in Perrydale and now the school district superintendent – who says it began as a class competition in the late 1990s. He was the freshman class advisor, and they were behind. They put in a call to Kettle Chips in Salem, which donated 1,000 pounds of potatoes.
“We went over with a pickup truck, came back and won the contest,” Hutchinson says. “The next year they gave us 2,000 pounds.”
The food drive grew from there, and spread to FFA chapters at other schools. At Perrydale, it’s also spread down the grade levels. Elementary and middle school children help pack, and by the time they enter high school are deeply immersed in the notion of helping others.
“I’ve been helping since fifth grade,” says Kaitlyn Moran, a senior. “I think it’s really important, especially at the holiday season. If we can give 40 pounds of food to a family, that’s a lot.”
Hutchinson, the former ag teacher, says the work of hundreds of people is necessary to make the food drive work. In addition to the students and FFA advisers, the project involves farmers and processors, civic and fraternal groups, food banks and adult volunteers who help with transportation and distribution.
For students, the community service aspect of the project is coupled with real-life education, he says.
“Kids have to learn to pack, palletize and load trucks,” he says. “They make sales calls, there’s marketing and advertising, thank-you letters. They learn the value of work and efficiency; it’s an amazing way for kids to learn and help others.
“The bottom line is that people who are hungry in Oregon get very needed fruit and vegetables in their diet,” Hutchinson says. “That kids are making this happen is a really, really gratifying event.”