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The canned food drive: What do students learn?

Elizabeth S. White (Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA)

Social Studies Research and Practice

ISSN: 1933-5415

Article publication date: 2 March 2021

Issue publication date: 25 May 2021




Numerous studies have shown that community service during adolescence is associated with positive youth outcomes and future civic engagement (Reinders and Youniss, 2006; Yates and Youniss, 1996). However, less is known about the ways in which students participate in and perceive intermittent, noncurricular community service. The purpose of this study is to examine seventh and eighth grade students' (N = 22) experiences during a common school-wide community service event: the canned food drive.


Data include students' journal responses to questions about the food drive including their feelings about the event, learning that took place, positive parts of the drive and challenges. An inductive qualitative analysis was used.


Analysis of students' responses revealed that most students perceived themselves and their classmates as being very helpful to the community and described feeling happiness and pride from the event, even when participation was minimal or nonexistent. While some students reported awareness of poverty and inequality after the food drive, many of their comments about those receiving the donations included deficit-oriented terminology and cognitive distancing by positioning those experiencing food insecurity as “the other” and different from themselves.

Practical implications

Findings highlight the benefits and shortcomings of community service, as class biases and surface-level ideas about helping may be unintentionally reinforced. Recommendations to address these issues are discussed.


Given the prevalence of community service in schools, qualitative research is needed to understand firsthand how students experience these events.



This research was supported by an Illinois State University College of Education University Research Grant.


White, E.S. (2021), "The canned food drive: What do students learn?", Social Studies Research and Practice, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 75-86.



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