Larry Adam, founder of Harvest for the Hungry, spoke to the kids gathered in the boardroom like a commander rallying his troops.
"And you, the students, you know how to raid your pantries, right?" he asked the group assembled at the Maryland Food Bank's headquarters in Halethorpe.
"Yes, sir. That's right," answered Elijah Martin, laughing and nodding his head in agreement.
Martin, who attends Catonsville High School, was one of several dozen students who participated in a kick-off rally for the Kids Helping Kids food drive yesterday.
For the next three weeks, students at more than 400 schools throughout the state will collect nonperishable food to donate to local food banks. Kids Helping Kids is part of Harvest for the Hungry, a yearlong volunteer effort to boost food donations.
The contribution that these students make is no small potatoes, said food bank Executive Director Bill Ewing. Last year, the campaign brought in more than 499,000 pounds of donations, which amounts to slightly less than half of the food that moves through the food bank in a typical month, he said.
Along with a group of special-needs students from Catonsville High School who help sort donations at the food bank, students from three schools in Anne Arundel County attended yesterday's event.
Participating in the food drive gives students a broader understanding of their community, said Kate Kinstel, the special event and food drive coordinator for the food bank.
"They really get a sense of their place in the world," she said. "They can get caught up in the high school and middle school politics, but this gives them a larger panorama."
The Catonsville students volunteer at the food bank for two hours twice a week, said their teacher, Allen Spurr. It helps them develop a sense of self-sufficiency and learn job skills, he said.
Yesterday morning, Martin, 20, and classmates Billy McCarren, 17, Quintin Draughn, 20, and Stanley Lesane, 18, packed cans of vegetables into boxes. Ashley McLee, 17, poured candy from small boxes into large boxes and Byron Johnson, 17, cleaned off dusty bottles.
Johnson said that he would like to work at the food bank after finishing at Catonsville.
After working in the morning, the Catonsville students listened to speeches by food bank and state schools employees. Then they joined a group of children from Crofton Middle School for a tour of the food bank led by employee Phillip Dodge.
Lesane and McLee hugged each other for warmth as the group scampered through a large freezer packed with cartons of ice cream and trays of chicken.
Dodge explained that most donations come from food producers that are more apt to give away sugary snacks than healthy meals. He urged the students to seek canned fruits and vegetables and protein sources like tuna and peanut butter to give to the drive.
Later, over pizza, eighth-grader Alexis Keegan, 13, and other Crofton Middle School pupils plotted how to bring in more donations this year. Some of their teachers have pledged to don turkey suits and jump in a river if the students give 100,000 pounds of food to the drive.
"It shows that you really care about people," Alexis said of the food campaign. "And it's kind of rude if you just don't do it."