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Courtesy of Credit Do
Seventh-graders at Connelly Middle School learn to shop frugally using grocery credit they earn from volunteering in a food drive. The program was set up through Credit Do, a company that teaches financial responsibility and allows them to exchange community service for groceries and school savings.

MANHATTAN, N.Y. — Seventh-graders in Manhattan are helping to feed their families at a young age.

With a turn to old-fashioned bartering, the high-percentage poverty schools Cornelia Connelly Center and University Neighborhood Middle School participate in Credit Do, a program that exchanges food for community service.

“It’s just like straight barter, but we do work service,” said Chris Hubschmann, the founder and CEO of Credit Do. “We think of it as doing something in exchange for something we need. It’s taking us back to our ancestors.”

Lower East Side Manhattan has a median income of $30,249 — more than $14,000 below the national median income, according to Zillow.

Ninety-eight to 100 percent of the students are on the lunch assistance program in these two middle schools, Hubschmann said. But Credit Do gives students the opportunity to assist others and their struggling families at the same time.

It starts in the classroom where financial literacy principles are taught in the regular math classes. Students learn earning and budgeting through coursework created by the Council for Economic Education.

The program, Hubschmann said, doesn’t add additional work for the teachers. “We’re just enhancing the curriculum and competency skills they have to have to pass exams,” Hubschmann said.

All seventh-graders in these middle schools participate in the classes, regardless of financial status.

“This population and this demographic are constantly faced with this sense of exclusion, so we wanted to make sure we didn’t create an exclusive experience,” Hubschmann said. “It would have to be inclusive.”

The bartering comes when students do their Work Service Saturday.

Local grocery stores hold a food drive outside of the store that is run by the students. As customers come into the store, students give them flyers on what the food drive needs.

Five hours of service at the food drive gives students $50 of grocery store credit. Following the service Saturday, the class learns the basics of saving money. Then, they participate in a contest to learn how to shop.

Students shop with their parents at the store where they received the $50 of credit. Receipts are turned in as homework to see evaluate frugality, such as how many servings the food yields.

But the program is about more than feeding families.

“Our whole purpose is not only to bring the tools and raise awareness, but also to lay the groundwork in setting the participants up for success,” Hubschmann said.

When a student helps in the food drive, the grocery store matches the $50 of grocery credit with an additional $50 for education savings. The money is put into a savings account at a local credit union. The money isn’t accessible to students until after high school graduation.

After they graduate, the invested money can be used for any educational fees such as trade schools, universities or school supplies.

Teaching them to save and plan on more education is part of the groundwork goal. Volunteering in the food drive also provides valuable networking for the students.

“We’ve had managers tell these 12-year-old students, ‘As soon as you’re 16 and you’re ready for that summer job,’ … they know these kids by name, they already have a job lined up and they are only 12, so it’s pretty wonderful,” Hubschmann said.

As students go through Credit Do’s program, parents are encouraged to attend free financial classes offered at the local credit union.

Currently, Credit Do is only in Lower East Side Manhattan. The program is still not flawless, Hubschmann said. She wants to make sure the model never becomes predatory before they expand.

In the meantime, the goal is to make financial literacy the cool thing for these students to do.

“If their peers are doing it doesn’t seem so strange,” Hubschmann said.