San Mateo High students aim to surpass school record for holiday food drive 

A Peninsula high school that holds a place in the Guinness World Records for its holiday food-drive collection is at it again, with students hoping to informally beat their own school's record.

San Mateo High School earned a spot in the 2000 edition of the popular record book by collecting 214,000 pounds of food during the 1999 holiday season.

Students from the school will be collecting food donations for this season in front of various supermarkets from Burlingame to Palo Alto through Monday, with the donated goods going to the Samaritan House. The nonprofit social-service organization has partnered with the students on their campaign every year.

Samaritan House Development Director Mary Dunbar explained that her organization in turn partners with local food banks to distribute the goods to people in need. The Peninsula is among the local areas that have a particular need for such donations, according to Dunbar, as one in 10 residents reportedly experience food insecurity.

While San Mateo High School has not petitioned Guinness for additional recognition in subsequent holiday seasons, Dunbar noted that if the students reach their goal this year, it won't be the first time the school has unofficially broken its 1999 record. According to Guinness, the record has since evolved into a 24-hour timeframe, rather than cumulatively over multiple days as when San Mateo set its mark.

The sheer tonnage collected by the students in 2005 -- at least 372,000 pounds -- was quite a challenging package for the Samaritan House to accept, Dunbar said.

"It got to the point where it was so significant that we didn't have room to store all that food," Dunbar noted.

When asked whether donating cash might be more efficient, though perhaps less psychologically rewarding, Samaritan House Chief Executive Officer Bart Charlow explained that the students do also collect a lot of monetary contributions. Still, Charlow noted that distributing food items can be more beneficial than cash donations because people struggling with poverty tend to stretch their dollars by buying cheap foods that contain too many fillers and empty calories.

Charlow said his own children worked the food drives in previous years and they can be great character-building exercises for the students.

"They learn something by standing in front of a store and asking for something," Charlow noted.

Charlow added that he was particularly impressed when student Ariel Tennenhouse solicited contributions from a room full of people at a Rotary Club meeting.

"He stood up and wowed that crowd and moved them to donate," Charlow said.

San Mateo High leadership teacher Sara Cowey Catalli said the food drive ties in to the leadership classes the school offers, allowing the students to work in teams and have fun competing with each other to see which team can get the most donations.

Some of Catalli's students have come away from the volunteer experience with deeply touching anecdotes, she said.

"One of my students shared about how a formerly homeless man donated a bunch of canned food and said, 'If it wasn't for people like you, I wouldn't have survived,'" Catalli recalled.

To view a calendar showing when and where the students will be collecting donations, visit www.smhscfd.com and click on "students."

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