04/06/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

Fourth Graders Change the Way School District Handles Unused Food

Two young ladies at Jaime Escalante Elementary School in Cudahy, a city eight miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, have changed the way a school and a school district look at unused food. When fourth graders Lesley Heredia and Paulina Sanchez saw how much food was being wasted every day on their campus, these students took the initiative to help those in need.

Working together with their Principal, Beth Fuller, they first set out to provide a "common table," where unopened food is placed where students can go for second helpings. "Students shouldn't be hungry; this way, if a student doesn't get enough to eat, they can go back for more," said nine-year-old Paulina Sanchez. The majority of the students at Jaime Escalante are on the free or reduced lunch program, which concerned Cudahy Mayor Josué Barrios: "When students are hungry, they are not paying attention in class; in this tough economic climate, many children aren't getting enough to eat at home." When they saw that there was still plenty of leftover food, these creative fourth graders next went to Los Angeles Unified School District to have them pass a resolution which allows them to also donate unopened food to a local food bank. "We shouldn't be wasting this much food with so many people hungry in our community, I think," commented Lesley Hernandez.

"I'm really impressed with these two young ladies," Mayor Barrios stated. "They went as far as to track not only how much food was being wasted, but also what kinds of food were not being consumed as much. I think we can all learn a lesson from these brilliant young students; every school in the district should be doing this."

The school has teamed up with the Southeast Churches Service Center, a local food bank that provides food and other services to roughly three thousand people a month. The nonprofit agency will pick up the unused, unopened food daily. In an area that has an unemployment rate of 16.8 percent, much higher than the county average of 12.3 percent, the food goes a long way. Six other schools have since made agreements with the food bank to collect the unopened food. Principal Fuller applauds these young ladies and sees this as a great opportunity for the students to know what it means to give back. "Children need to know they can make a difference. They are both outstanding role models for all the students at Jaime Escalante and already at a young age productive citizens that contribute to our community."

Aside from being recognized by the Mayor and Cudahy City Council, these two young ladies have caught the attention of California State Assembly member and Chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, Ricardo Lara. Every year, California Legislators pay tribute to women who have made a difference in the district by honoring them with Women of Distinction Awards. Assembly member Lara paid tribute to the two nine-year-olds as recipients of the Community Action Award: "These young ladies have taught that leadership, like compassion and kindness, transcends age and gender. Their tenacity and vision at such a young age is to be admired."

Lesley and Paulina's next goal is to raise enough money to start a community garden in their school.