Wearing polo shirts and button-downs, they pitched with the confidence of grown-up entrepreneurs on the television show “Shark Tank.” Except their audience was the Loudoun County School Board, and the entrepreneurs are middle-schoolers.
“We have a proposal for you that could benefit our local food pantries, such as the Dulles South Food Pantry, for years to come,” said Ankit Khanbelwal, a seventh-grader at J. Michael Lunsford Middle School. “Our proposal looks to harness the power of the many students that buy lunch at school.”
Ankit and two of his classmates — Chas Chappell and Wim Tapley — have an idea that they believe could provide a more constant source of funding for food pantries, which are reliant on inconsistent cash and food donations.
“What if we could provide the option of donating 10 cents to the local food pantry along with the cost of a normal lunch?” Wim asked board members. They crunched the numbers: If students make regular, small donations when they buy their lunches at school, the program could raise almost half a million dollars a year.
“Seriously,” Wim said, pausing and pressing his fingers together for effect. “We’ve done the math.”
The pitch started as a school assignment that was the extension of a lesson on the Great Depression. In an era when high unemployment drove widespread hunger and malnutrition, millions became dependent on food from charities and the government. But history teachers wanted to show that food insecurity also is a modern problem, even in the United States. So they brought in the president of the Dulles South Food Pantry, who made it clear that amid the new homes and gated communities of this tony suburban community, there are families without enough to eat.
The lesson was part of the “One to the World” initiative, a district-wide effort to teach students by having them take on real-world problems. In education lingo, it’s known as project-based learning — cross-disciplinary efforts that aim to mimic what students will encounter when they leave the classroom and enter the working world.
“We wanted to give students the opportunity to make a difference,” said Adele George, their history teacher. “It’s applying what they learned to the actual community.”
The boys used the academic skills they learned in history class to attack the issue. They built an online survey via Google and did the math to come up with projections. Then, with the help of Wim’s father, a salesman, they refined their pitch, aware that adults might not respond well to a proposal from a group of seventh-graders.
“We really wanted people to take us seriously, so we had to be the best that we could be,” Wim said. “We had to be on our ‘A’ game.”
As they wrapped up their pitch, the packed crowd broke into wild applause, validating that the students might be onto something. Later, the superintendent’s office got in touch. Now, the students are in talks with school staff to turn their project into a reality.