One cold day last winter, when my son Cal was seven, we were driving through town to do some shopping at Costco. We were stopped at a light, busy negotiating whether or not he would be allowed to get a churro from the food court, when he spotted a young woman in layered coats standing on the corner holding a cardboard sign.

Need money for baby food. Anything helps.

His voice quivering, he pointed out the window and asked if I had any money. I told him I didn’t  have any cash with me. The light turned green and as we drove away he started to cry.

“Mom, we have to help her.”

Of course, he was right. I said we couldn’t give her money, but we could give her food. At Costco we purchased a box of baby food in squeezable containers and on the way home we drove back along the same route to look for her. As we approached the intersection for the second time I slowed and rolled down my window. “Hi!” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Here’s some baby food. I hope it helps.”

She took it, and thanked us. We drove off, and I looked back at Cal. He nodded seriously. He looked like a kid whose world view had forever changed. For the first time in his life, he was thinking about the reality of being a hungry kid.

Later he had more questions, and I answered them as best I could. But the hard truth is that many people in America don’t have enough to eat, and hunger disproportionately affects kids.

According to Feedingamerica.org:

  • In 2014 46.7 million people (about 15 percent of the population) were living in poverty.
  • 48.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, which includes over 15 million children.
  • That translates to about 20 percent of the kids in an average public school classroom

I shared those numbers with Cal, and we thought about them for a moment. He said he couldn’t imagine coming home from school and worrying that there wouldn’t be anything for him to eat. Neither could I. Nor could I imagine what it would feel like to worry that  he was hungry and there was nothing I could do about it.

The problem is big, with no simple solution. And it’s easy to feel helpless, especially if you’re a kid. But there are ways kids and adults can have a real impact in your community and beyond.  If your kids are concerned about hunger, empathize, and encourage them to take action.

Kids are powerful, and it’s never too early to teach them that people working together can make a difference. You can even enlist classmates or teachers to help organize efforts.

For older kids – 10 and up – the 2012 documentary A Place At The Table  is a great resource for looking at the problem of childhood hunger in the U.S., and a good starting point for discussions on action kids can take to help in their community.

1 | Get involved with your local food shelf.

There are often volunteer opportunities for both kids and adults. Help prepare or serve a free meal, or volunteer to help out during the busy holiday season. Start on Foodpantries.org  or Ampleharvest.org to learn about programs in your area and what kind of volunteer opportunities are available.

2 | Consider making a weekly donation as a family to an organization that provides free meals or groceries to folks in need.

You can use this locator to find food banks near you and find out how and when to donate food or funds.

3 | Start a donation jar at your house.

When your kids get money (allowance, birthdays, etc.) or whenever they feel like it, they can add some to the jar. When you reach a set amount you can donate it to a hunger-fighting initiative like Feeding America or a local organization.

4 | Reduce family food waste.

There are a lot of good websites dedicated to ideas for working on this at home and in the community. Start here and follow their links.

5 | If you’re lucky enough to live near working farms, or if you participate in a CSA, find out if they have gleaning or food rescue programs.

You can usually volunteer to pick, wash, or distribute gleaned produce to food banks, schools or child care centers.