Erin Kistner

Attending an Illinois 4-H Hunger Summit in 2018 kickstarted Erin Kistner’s passion to help those who are hungry. She created a program at her high school to provide food for students on the weekends. 

When Erin Kistner announced her idea to provide food to high school students who were hungry on weekends when school lunches weren’t available, her Hillsboro High School principal was skeptical. She didn’t believe that students would actually accept the food.

But Kistner didn’t get discouraged.

The teen was motivated to tackle this problem after the 2018 Illinois 4-H Hunger Summit where she learned that 2.3 million households in rural communities faced food insecurity. It opened her eyes to how many children and adults were hungry, said Kistner, who lives in the community of Witt, in southern Illinois, with a population of less than 900.

When talking to a fellow student about her experience, she learned his family had been without electricity for a month.

“How could he have a source of food that way? It blew my mind,” she said.

In her high school sociology class, she was allowed to do an anonymous survey which showed that 25% of the high school students surveyed experienced hunger at home and on the weekends.

There are food programs for elementary and middle school children, but nothing for most high schoolers.

By November 2019 she was providing a weekend food program for high schoolers. The first week, five students accepted the food; soon it was 20 a week, then more than 30 a week. She gave out 360 bags of food.

“Then came COVID,” she said.

The need became greater when schools were closed and more family members were without jobs. She arranged for food to be dropped off by school buses that were running routes. During that period, when she was a high school senior, she distributed 3,344 bags of food and hygiene products.

Kistner won an honorable mention for the 4-H Youth in Action Award in the Healthy Living Pillar, said Katie Duitsman, Illinois 4-H leadership and recognition specialist.

The 4H Youth in Action Program recognizes four young leaders with diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives in its core pillar areas: agriculture, civic engagement, healthy living and STEM.

Kistner, now a freshman at Parkland College in Champaign and living on the University of Illinois campus, said she was pleased to be one of the eight finalists in the national competition and will continue with her efforts.

She remains in touch with her high school to make sure the program is continuing. Distribution remains a challenge during the pandemic.

Kistner, who describes herself as being “really shy” when she was younger, said the communication and leadership skills she learned in 4-H gave her the confidence to do this. That confidence led her to study communications and television broadcasting in college.

“I was a 4-H member for 10 years, but I’ve been around it my whole life,” said Kistner, whose two brothers were also active in 4-H. She is inspired by her mother, Denise Kistner, who was named to the 4-H Hall of Fame in 2018 for her work with Extension and volunteer efforts.

“I will continue to talk about hunger. Every high school student should have food to eat,” said Kistner, who would like to see her program expand to other schools.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.