“When I was 10 years old I learned that 375,000 kids in my state of North Carolina suffered from food insecurity. I wanted to make a difference. Today I’m 14, and my food pantry has served 1.5 million meals. People thought hunger relief was a phase with me. But, I guess…it wasn’t.”
A giant shout-out to every kid who has seen a problem they wanted to solve. Every girl who felt underestimated or was told to leave change-making to the grown ups. Meet MacKenzie (Kenzie) Hinson, and know that you don’t need adulthood to take action. You don’t even need a driver’s license.
“It’s a little crazy,” Kenzie told the girls’ mentorship platform Être, “I have four vehicles in my name so we can transport our food, but I can’t drive any of them!” We had to learn more.
Ê: OK, start at the beginning. You were ten years old and just decided to open a food pantry?
K: Pretty much! I gave a speech for my 4-H club called “Hunger In Our Community,” and learned that 54 percent of my community was food insecure. But those were statistics. Then I volunteered in a food pantry and met the people. And that changed everything. I told my mom I wanted to build a new kind of pantry.
Ê: What did you mean?
K: I wanted a place where people weren’t embarrassed to go for food. A place that looked liked an actual grocery store and had lots of healthy food choices. I pictured bright colors, friendly people and a place where families could shop for what they needed. It’s not just about the food – it’s about how you make people feel. So that’s just what I set out to do with the Make a Difference Food Pantry.
I spoke at a local church and met people who wanted to volunteer. We started in a church fellowship hall, got our non-profit status and fed our first 25 families. Three months later we moved to a strip mall and then we moved again after eight months. Now our two current buildings (our food distribution site and our monthly clothing distribution site) are running out of space and I’m looking for a warehouse! There’s a real need for us, and we’re growing with that need – we have mobile feeding programs for the elderly, a Backpack Buddy program to feed kids over the weekend as well as holiday and summer relief programs.
Ê: It’s truly unbelievable. How many people would you say come through your doors each month?
K: We regularly feed seven thousand people a month, but it grows every day. We honestly have lines down the street. Since our doors opened in 2014 we have served 1.5 million meals, which translates to about 1.7 million pounds of food. We’ve been super busy.
Ê: Awe. We’re in awe. What does it take for you to run this, and how can people outside your area help?
K: Well, I need about 20 thousand pounds of food a week to run Make a Difference, and I have to buy it since less than ten percent of the food is donated. In a community where people don’t have enough food to eat, people don’t have the food to donate. So we purchase it, store it and then provide it through our pantries and trucks.
People outside our community can donate on our website or on our Facebook page. Amazon Prime keeps a running list of exactly what we need each month, so it gets shipped right to us. We partner with lots of local businesses, and larger companies have noticed and are joining our mission.
Ê: We heard that! You were named a Meals That Matter Hero by Tyson Foods in 2017, and now you are one of three finalists in General Mills’ Feeding Better Futures Scholars Program competing for $50,000 to expand your work and share your ideas at the Aspen Ideas Festival! What does it mean to you to be recognized like this?
K: It’s amazing! Tyson gave us a commercial freezer along with $20,000 and that helped us in the most wonderful way. I was so surprised I almost cried.
Now being a General Mills finalist, I’m so honored and excited, because there’s so much more I want to do and their support can help so much.
Ê: What has been the hardest thing you’ve faced on this journey? And on the flip side, what has been one of the best things this has shown you?
K: Definitely one of the hardest times was during Hurricane Florence. We stayed open even though our pantry was flooded, and a local church let us cook in their kitchen so we could feed families. Team Rubicon stepped in to help (we had worked with them during Hurricane Matthew), and they were wonderful. Hard times like that show us how important it is for us to stay open and have our services available.
Other times show us the worst and the best. During the summers we run Kenzie’s Camp programs, to keep kids from going hungry over the summer break. Last summer one little boy came up for a plate, and then a few minutes later came back and asked for another. I said, “Sure, buddy! You hungry today?” He said it was for his mom and grandma. They hadn’t eaten for two days that so he could eat. Moments like that show me the worst, because of how folks are suffering, and the best because I know we can help.
Ê: What’s your vision for the Make a Difference Pantry? How would you like to scale it and what do you ultimately hope to accomplish?
K: I see so much in our future. I’d like to expand to other states with the same needs – Louisiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina – and I think with our momentum and backing we can do it. I already know I want to major in agriculture sustainability in college, and I’d love to have gardens and farm-to-table soup kitchens along with our pantries. I wish there wasn’t such a need for what we do, but while there is I have a million ideas I want to put into action.
Ê: What would you tell middle school girls – the age you were when you first started – who see a need in their community and have an innovative idea? How should they think about beginning?
K: Once you have an idea that unfolds into a plan, it can brighten your entire horizon. First of all, have faith in your idea. Believe in yourself and what you know you can do. Next, take that first step. If you don’t try, you don’t know what you can accomplish, so take one small step. And finally, make sure you have people around you who believe in what you’re doing. I could never have done all this without my family, and the Make a Difference volunteers who are just like my family. It takes a lot of help to reach your goals, but with the right help anything is possible.
Ê: We believe you. And we’re grateful for your time today and for all the good you are doing. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for General Mills, and our eyes wide open to see what you do next.
Because, as she’s showing you, anything is possible.
Through the Feeding Better Futures Scholars Program, General Mills calls for young innovators to bring forth their ideas and in-action solutions to tackle challenges in hunger relief, food waste and sustainability. Learn more here and think about how you can make a difference in your world. Être is grateful to Kenzie, her family and General Mills for highlighting such extraordinary work.