A student-run program at Central High School in North Philly is helping combat hunger not only among students, but also in the surrounding community.
Called Feeding Philly, the program launched at the start of the 2022-23 school year, and provided aid to more than 500 families, with over 600 hours of volunteer and service work across its 340 members. The next community giveaway is set for this Saturday at James Logan Elementary.
The group is the brainchild of rising senior Samantha Sandhaus, a 17-year-old from Fox Chase who came up with the idea to create a mutual aid organization in her sophomore year.
It built on an idea she’d been thinking about for a while.
“In sixth grade … I was hospitalized for a really intense eating disorder, and experienced firsthand the detrimental effects of malnutrition,” Sandhaus told Billy Penn. “I wanted to do all I could to make sure that there were no systemic barriers for people in my community to get the nutrition they needed, especially young kids.”
Last year, 20% of student households in Philadelphia reported experiencing food insecurity, which is double the national average of 10%. Students in the city are offered free breakfast and lunch every school day, provided by the school district and the federal meal programs.
When they move through the cafeteria line, students are mandated to take a fruit in the morning with breakfast and a fruit or vegetable during lunchtime, the School District of Philadelphia confirmed.
These sometimes end up untouched, Sandhaus and classmates said. Along with other unused items, Feeding Philly now collects that extra food, as well as private donations from teachers and students, and uses them to stock a fridge anyone at Central can access throughout the day.
There’s currently one fridge located on the third floor next to the cafeteria, but this year the group hopes to open a second fridge on the first floor, per Sandhaus.
It wasn’t easy getting the program approved. “We were wandering around on a wild goose chase trying to seek a yes, like a solid yes, from food services, [or] from anyone in the district,” Sandhaus said, explaining that they eventually received approval from their principal.
She was inspired to start Feeding Philly after joining a food bank in Mayfair called The Feast of Justice, where she noticed people were limited to a certain amount of times they could visit, and they needed identification.
“I really wanted to cultivate an environment where everyone felt and was welcome to receive food. And where people could do it with dignity and privacy,” Sandhaus explained.
When the club found itself needing a new sponsor last year, Feeding Philly treasurer Hannah Thomas suggested English teacher Kristen Peeples. Sandhaus had never been taught by Peeples, but worked up courage to make the ask — and got a yes.
“Immediately, I vehemently said, absolutely,” Peeples told Billy Penn. “We can’t physically sponsor all the clubs that we get asked to sponsor,” she added, noting the school hosts over 100 of them. “But this is one that spoke to my soul.”
Rising senior Una Liu is one of Feeding Philly’s active members. When her family, like many others, struggled during the pandemic to make ends meet, they patronized Mayfair’s Feast of Justice, and Liu began volunteering there. She’s thrilled to be continuing that work at Central High.
“It is really important for me to be able to be involved in giving back to the community,” Liu said, “because my local food bank helped me.”
Feeding Philly’s monthly community food distribution touches about 75-80 families, per Sandhaus, and the group receives extra support and donations via a partnership with Sharing Excess, a local nonprofit committed to reducing food waste and increasing food access.
Some club leaders are graduating this spring, but they all hope it continues — not just at Central, but to other high schools and beyond state lines.
“One of the main reasons why I’ve continued to stay with Feeding Philly, and put so much time and effort into it is because it’s definitely opened my eyes,” Thomas said, “realizing at such a young age that our group of people can do so much — like, wow, we did that at age 17.”
Other embers echoed this sense of pride and achievement, and said that they are eager to see old and new members at this year’s meetings.
“You come for your friends, and then you stay because you understand that there’s so much that’s being done here,” said rising senior Angela Varughese. “And it’s such an incredible thing to be a part of.”
For more information on how to volunteer or participate, visit feedingphilly.org.