Food Drives: Motivating Peers to Participate

By Lyn Fiscus

One of the staples on school calendars is a canned food drive, often held during the winter holiday season. Student leaders are charged with organizing the drive and motivating their peers to bring in nonperishable food for it. People are familiar with this activity and usually participate because they know others need their help. But sometimes participation can be a bit lackluster—ho hum another food drive, let’s see, what cans of food I don’t like can I dig out of mom’s pantry to turn in? How do you get your peers excited about participating in a food drive and making an impact on hunger in your community? Try some of these approaches.


One of the tried-and-true methods for stimulating lots of participation is to conduct the food drive as a competition. Some schools compete by grade level, while others have homerooms or designated class periods compete. In addition to bragging rights, usually some sort of incentive is offered—a breakfast or lunch for the winning class is common. Another prize is that the winning class gets a field trip to help deliver the food to the agency it is going to.

If you are conducting a food drive competition, keep these points in mind:

• How will you make the contest fair? Ms. Hilton’s class of 17 students can’t be expected to bring in as much food as Mr. Matt’s class of 32. To keep the accounting fair, take into consideration the amount collected relative to class size. For example, if Ms. Hilton’s class brings in 133 cans and Mr. Matt’s class brings in 188 cans, Ms. Hilton’s would win, even though their total is lower, because that’s an average of 7.8 cans per person, while Mr. Matt’s class average is only 5.9 cans.

• How will you report standings in the competition? Friendly rivalry can help bring in more contributions, so keep students posted on what the standings are in the competition. Announcements each day during the competition of how much was turned in and which class is in the lead are a good way to keep the drive in people’s thoughts. You can also create a poster or display with each class’s tally.

• How will food items count in the tally? Give some thought to how you will account for various sizes and types of food. One point per pound is an easy way to keep track. You can also stimulate contributions of particular types of food by making them count more, for example items with protein like beef stew or chili count double or triple in the tally. Highlight different parts of the food pyramid on different days.

• How will you count cash donations? Some people will prefer to just donate cash, so designate that 50 cents equals one point, or whatever seems fair.

Fun Categories

Set up categories like “most protein items” or “most spirited” and award sub-prizes in your competition to classes that don’t win the overall competition but that put in a good effort. Publicize these ahead of time so classes can strive for them.

Whole-School Goal

If competition isn’t the kind of spirit you’re going for with your food drive, a different approach is to set a goal for the whole school to reach, then reward them if they reach it. Get your teachers and administrators to agree to do certain things if the goal is reached. For example, if you collect 1,000 pounds, Mrs. Roberts agrees to get a pie in the face, and if you collect 10,000 pounds, Mr. Allen will shave his head, and so on. If the final goal is reached, perhaps everyone can attend a special assembly or have an extended lunch period.


People are often motivated by self-interest, so make it worth their while to participate. Give each student a point per item donated, then hold an auction either during lunch or before or after school where they use their points like dollars to buy donated items.


Develop a theme for the drive that ties into the time of year you are holding it. Develop your posters and announcements around the theme to spark interest. Some suggestions include:

• Sports: Let’s Strike Out Hunger or Let’s Tackle Hunger

• Before winter or spring break: Hunger Never Takes a Vacation

• Halloween: Scare Up Some Food

• Thanksgiving: Sharing Is Caring

• Lincoln’s Birthday: Abolish Hunger

• Valentine’s Day: Have a Heart—Do Your Part

Kick-off Effort

Begin the food drive with an effort to make students aware of hunger issues in your community. If time permits, hold an assembly featuring a speaker from the agency to which the food will be donated or play a taped message over the school announcements. Create posters and announcements with facts about hunger (see box for example) and stress how much the food is needed.

Food Sculpture

Hold a classroom competition where students bring in nonperishable food and create a sculpture with it. Have art teachers judge the sculptures using a rating system that includes size, quantity of food, stability, and creativity. Award prizes to the best creations. Be sure to take photos and send them to your local newspaper, or alert the paper ahead of time so they can cover the activity.


Add a can of food as part of the price of admission to an activity. Holiday concerts by choir and band are a good opportunity to do this, as are winter sporting events.

Food for Fines

Work with your school librarians to see if they will accept canned goods in lieu of overdue book fines.

Scavenger Hunt

Give out lists of particular food items to teams of students, then disburse them into the community to see which team can find all the items on the list first.

Can the Principal

Challenge the school to fill up the principal’s office with cans. If you are successful, the principal will spend a day at a desk in the hallway.

Rival School Competition

Challenge a rival school to see which school can bring the most cans to a game between their school and yours. Be sure to coordinate with the school athletic directors.