While many high school students are relaxing over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a group of students from Ross High School is working this weekend to feed hungry families.
“With the holidays and everything, there’s a lot more people that are trying to pick up (food) boxes and our need is actually expanding,” said Hunter Cornelius, a senior at Ross High School.
He'll spend Saturday working with Jee Foods, a student-operated, anti-hunger nonprofit that grew out of a single class at Butler Tech. About 13 students and 200 volunteers are part of the organization, which reclaims and repurposes food that restaurants might otherwise throw away.
The need for their services is greater than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, but so are the logistical challenges they face. They've had to pivot more than once to continue safely serving their clients.
"When the pandemic hit, all of the clients came all at one time," said Levi Grimm, Butler County coordinator and assistant director at Jee Foods. Grimm is also a senior at Ross High School. "So, we had a lot more restaurants and schools, when they were closing, that were donating this food."
The swell of donations arrived alongside an equally powerful upswing in demand. More nonprofits started contacting the students for food.
Grimm said initially the group's goal was to extend the shelf-life of food to give time for it to get to families. He said there's little need for a longer shelf-life now.
"Instead of transforming it, we were able to get it directly to people in need," he said.
As more non-profits contacted Jee Foods, the students found themselves distributing more food. In April, through their partnership with the organization Food Rescue US, the students were connected to the USDA "Farms to Families" food box program.
“They were definitely surprised when they heard that students were the ones that were going to be distributing their food,” said Grimm. But the students were taught through their class at Butler Tech to have a "business mindset."
“Our adviser there taught us to run it just like a business. To us students, that was the first thing that provided the connection," said Grimm. "So, we need to see ourselves as business professionals.”
That means some students handle the finances, some handle operations and some handle the marketing.
Every Saturday, students and volunteers unload semitrailers filled with food boxes. The boxes get loaded into vehicles representing 30 local partners, which then distribute the food. About 2,500 food boxes are headed to communities across the Tri-State within a few hours.
“It started at 30,000 pounds. Now we’re up to 60,000 pounds of fresh food," Grimm said. "And each combo box that we give out to a family is about 30 pounds and it includes meat, dairy, produce."
"They distribute all the food out that day, or they have refrigeration space where they get it within the week,” said Cornelius. "I don’t think we really expected this scale to happen within the pandemic.”
Grimm estimates they've distributed about 1.5 million pounds of food since April.
Cornelius is responsible for connecting with the agencies that distribute the food boxes to those who need them. The company outgrew the space they were using at their school. Now, a local company donates its warehouse space (and a complimentary forklift operator) to the students.
The students spend 30-40 hours a week working for the nonprofit, not including their school time and homework. However, the experience has given them a real-life look at the nonprofit business world. It has also helped some students decide what they want to do after high school.
Cornelius said his college major plans have switched from chemistry to business.
"I joined Jee and realized how fun the learning experience and the business world actually was," he said.
Grimm said he wants to start a branch of Jee Foods when he goes to college, like one of the founders did at the Ohio State University. He is also thinking of getting into nonprofit management.
"Or just something where I always have a 'people' focus,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic continues and hunger continues alongside it, both students say they will continue to work with Jee and provide food for needy families for as long as it takes.