Brywood Elementary students take on the cause of fighting hunger in Orange County

Fifth-graders in Mary Thomas-Vallens’ class at Brywood Elementary School were shocked to read in the newspaper that nearly 500,000 Orange County residents don’t get enough food each month. And while many children in the county qualify for free and reduced-price meals through their schools, the Brywood students realized those meals won’t necessarily continue through the summer.

Thus began an ambitious service-learning initiative that began in April and concluded this week. The project’s name aptly summed up the concern that motivated the class in the first place: “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation.”

Under the leadership of Thomas-Vallens, the fifth-graders rallied a number of other Irvine elementary schools to participate in a food drive for the nonprofit Families Forward organization. To spread the word, teams of students created their own marketing materials — including posters, a brochure, a video and a slide presentation — and some attended an IUSD principals meeting.

The class read about farm labor to better understand where food comes from, but they didn’t stop there. They also took a hands-on approach by gleaning the fields of the Incredible Edible Park, sending freshly picked vegetables from Irvine’s community garden to the Second Harvest Food Bank. In all, the students filled more than 60 bins, each weighing about 40 to 50 pounds, collecting enough vegetables for roughly 12,000 meals.

Thomas-Vallens said the months-long endeavor incorporated nearly every subject, from English and history to math and nutrition. Each activity, she said, was carefully planned to align with the Common Core instructional standards.

“I integrated all the related teaching with Common Core standards in language arts, social studies, math, and health,” she wrote in an email. “We read the O.C. Register as non-fiction reading in literature. We used technology to write the letters, create the brochure, the PowerPoint, etc. — all writing to a real audience.”

Brywood fifth-graders Katerina Hanks, Mia Quaglierini and Sasha Anand were kind enough to send us an enthusiastic summary of their work this week. Here’s an excerpt:

One exciting part of our edible garden field trip was taking public transportation. Before riding the bus, we had to learn how to read a bus schedule and figure out what route to take. Our Internet search also told us about how congestion in Orange County is projected to grow, and that using the bus is one way to cut down on costs, traffic, and pollution.

Finally, we had a competition for the best kid-friendly, nutritious meal we could get for $2 per person. Teams of six pooled their money, scoured food ads, collected coupons, and researched nutritional data. With money and bags in hand, we walked to Albertson’s. We compared generic versus name brand foods, tested the scales for accuracy, and weighed fruit to figure out how much we could afford. After buying our food, we made presentations explaining why our team’s meal was the best. These activities taught us to appreciate every bite we eat.