Twelve-year-old Kenzie Hinson had no idea one in three children in her county didn’t have enough food to eat—but when she found out, she was determined to do something about it. Kenzie is the founder of Make A Difference Food Pantry, a food bank that serves over 1,000 people a month through fundraising efforts and partnerships with local businesses. On June 18, Kenzie was named a Tyson Foods Meals that Matter Hero and awarded $20,000 (plus a commercial freezer) to cover overhead expenses. We were lucky to catch up with Kenzie after she won her awesome new title.
How old were you when you started your food pantry?
I had the idea to start the Make a Difference Food Pantry when I was 10 years old. It took a couple months to get started. I had to raise money and set up partnerships with local businesses to donate food. I had to get help from an accounting firm to set up the books; I had to get nonprofit status–there were a million things! But I set my mind to it and I got it done. Now I’m 12, and the food pantry is helping more people than I ever imagined! We served about 35 people the first month we were in business; now we serve more than 1,000 people every month.
What gave you the idea to create the Make A Difference Food Pantry and turn it into a business?
I’m in 4-H, and for a speech competition I learned about hunger experienced by kids my age and by grownups. I learned that in Wayne County (where I live), one in three children and one in five elderly people don’t have enough to eat every day. Once I knew that, I knew I had to do something.
One rainy day, my mom and I were driving down the road by my house, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about those people. I said, “Mommy, I want to start a food pantry.” She said, “Okay, let’s figure out what we need to do.” And that was that. We wrote down a plan, and we started a food pantry.
What has been your biggest challenge in getting started and how have you overcome it?
Sorting the potatoes and sweet potatoes! One of my sponsors, Food Lion, donates hundreds of pounds of potatoes and sweet potatoes, and we have to sort through them all to make sure they’re in good shape to give to my clients. There are so many! It is hard work, but I have so many awesome volunteers, like Ms. Betty and Skipper, who help me out so much.
Plus, when I see the smiles on my clients’ faces, the work doesn’t feel so hard. Knowing that I’m helping people get food they need and feel happy makes all the potato sorting (and all the other hard stuff we’ve done to get the pantry going) feel pretty easy.
How do you find time to balance school and work?
My mom and I make a lot of lists to keep ourselves organized. Plus, I’m homeschooled, so my schedule is a little more flexible. I am still a kid, so other than school and the food pantry, I do lots of kid stuff like swimming, golfing, and clogging. Fortunately I have lots of volunteers help me keep the food pantry going every week, so I’m able to do all the things I love.
What problem does your Make a Difference Food Pantry solve for the industry?
One of the other things I learned when I was doing my research for my 4-H speech was that it’s really hard for hungry people to get healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Unhealthy foods like macaroni and cheese are a lot cheaper than nutritious foods like vegetables and meat, so a lot of the time eating unhealthy is the only way for food insecure people to eat at all. A lot of the food pantries I volunteered at weren’t able to give their clients any choices either; the clients were just handed a box instead of making decisions on what to eat for themselves.
The Make a Difference Food Pantry is different. We’re set up like a grocery store. My clients walk through and choose the things they want. The best part is that we’re able to give them healthy stuff; I try to always have produce options for my clients, as well as frozen meats. We know that this choice makes them feel good about coming to the pantry, and how people feel when they come to my pantry is important.
Have your parents helped you with your business? What have they taught you?
My parents have been with me every step of the way. They have always believed in me, and I couldn’t do it without them. They support me so much, and they’ve taught me so much. First, they taught me how important it is to pay blessings forward. My mom had a stroke when I was little, and people in our community helped us so much when we needed it. She’s doing a lot better now, but she always reminds me to help others like we were helped.
The second thing they’ve taught me is that I can do anything I set my mind to. Lots of adults wouldn’t listen to a 10 year-old saying they wanted to start a food pantry, but my parents did. And look at us now! With hard work, I was able to make my dreams come true, and I’m going to keep dreaming.
What are your plans for the future; will you keep building food pantry?
I want to make my food pantry into a warehouse! And I want to have a garden so we always have fresh produce. My plan is to buy the building I’m in and the land I’m on to make both of those things happen. I’m really excited because Tyson Foods just named me as a Meals that Matter Hero, and they gave the pantry a commercial freezer and a $20,000 check to help with my expenses! (I got so excited when they surprised me with the gift that I couldn’t help but cry.) This is really going to help me start saving and make my goal of serving more and more people at the food pantry possible.
What advice would you give young Kidpreneurs who want to start their own business like you did?
When you’re a kid, you’re going to need help to start a business. I mean, we can’t even drive! But there are so many grownups out there who want to help you if you only ask. My best advice is to look around for people that can help you, and ask them for help. I have a HUGE group of people who make the Make a Difference Food Pantry happen; I could never do it alone. And they help because I asked them for help; you can’t wait for it to be offered to you.
Tyson Foods found out about the work I’m doing because my mom nominated me to become a Meals that Matter Hero. They were looking for people fighting hunger to support, and they helped me because I told them about my mission. My advice to Kidpreneurs is to keep your eyes open for big opportunities like these, and always make the most of them!
What do you think about the Kidpreneurs concept for teaching kids the basic principles of Entrepreneurship at a young age?
I think it is so cool! I was able to start my pantry because the people around me helped me see that no matter how big or small you are, you can make a difference. I’m sure there are lots of other kids out there with ideas like mine to help people, and learning about entrepreneurship can be a great start. One thing I love about the food pantry is helping other kids see how much they are capable of, and Kidpreneurs helps kids see that too.