Jonah Keller was strolling through the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market one Sunday last summer with his family when, seeing the abundance of produce and other foods, inspiration struck.
“I just thought it would be really cool if people would donate food to the [Squirrel Hill Community] Food Pantry as they came by,” the 12-year-old recalled.
The Winchester Thurston seventh-grader has turned that inspiration into a reality — and in a big way. In only nine weeks, Jonah has collected more than 1,300 pounds of food for the SHCFP through a donation booth he has set up at the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market.
“It’s mostly fresh produce, but some people bring canned goods,” Jonah said as he managed his booth last Sunday along with his mother, Kristen. “Some people give us cash, and then we go out and buy food with the cash to donate.”
Jonah’s younger sister, Avielle, is the official produce shopper, he said.
Jonah has been volunteering with his family at the SHCFP for years; his father, Matthew Keller, is the chair-elect of the board of directors at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, which operates the SHCFP. So, when Jonah got the idea to set up the donation booth, he had some guidance as to where to turn for help. He reached out to Matthew Bolton, the director of SHCFP, as well as Alec Rieger, the founder of NextGen:Pgh, which helped bring the Farmers Market to the parking lot behind the former Gullifty’s Restaurant, between Beacon and Bartlett streets.
“They both said it was a cool idea, and we sent lots of emails back and forth,” Jonah said. “Then we had a bunch of meetings with them.”
Citiparks also has been involved as “a key partner in the project, with their overall coordination of the market, and ensuring that that there is space for the table every week,” said Kristen Keller.
The project has been going “much better than I expected,” Jonah said. “I thought that maybe we would get 1,000 pounds of food by the end of the season, but we already have more than 1,000 pounds, and we are only halfway through the season.”
Many volunteers have been engaged by Jonah, and he has five families who regularly help staff his booth. Volunteers can sign up on a calendar he started on SignUpGenius, a free website for sign-up forms.
Jonah’s project has made a significant impact on the community that extends beyond the collection of food, according to Bolton.
“First, Jonah’s outreach during the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market has increased awareness of hunger and food insecurity in our community,” Bolton said. “Second, Jonah has shared with families our pantry’s volunteer opportunities. The pantry could not exist without volunteer support and having a volunteer ambassador such as Jonah share his passion of volunteership with others is a profound message that speaks more than words.”
The local farmers who come each week to sell their goods also participate by donating bags of unsold produce to the SHCFP.
While Kristen Keller is by her son’s side at the booth, Jonah is really running the show.
“I try to stay in the background and let Jonah take the lead,” she said. “I try to be his number one cheerleader and I try to get the word out through friends and social media. People have been amazingly supportive with their generosity, encouragement, and kind words.”
That encouragement has motivated Jonah to keep the booth operating next summer as well, although he hopes to hand it off to a successor. He plans to spend several weeks at Emma Kaufmann Camp and travel to Israel to celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah.
“Jonah has shown others that it doesn’t take much to make a big difference in your community, just an idea and some determination, and that children are not powerless to effect positive change around them,” said JF&CS president and CEO Aryeh Sherman in a prepared statement. “Jonah has spread the knowledge about hunger in our neighborhoods, made friends, engaged other volunteers, collected a lot of healthy fresh food for the food pantry, and organized it all. We are impressed with his initiative and grateful for his compassion.”
While Jonah will be out of town for most of August this year, his friends and their families will keep the table going.
“I think Jonah is doing great to support folks in need of food,” said family friend and Farmers Market shopper Jeff Freedman. “Jonah has led the way to promote a way to assist those people. I want to be just like him when I grow up.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.