As first-grade students at Stevenson Elementary School walked single-file into the school cafeteria Friday, Sept. 4, for a morning activity, they undoubtedly spied the bowls full of Cheerios and M&M's on a table at the front of the room.

As first-grade students at Stevenson Elementary School walked single-file into the school cafeteria Friday, Sept. 4, for a morning activity, they undoubtedly spied the bowls full of Cheerios and M&M's on a table at the front of the room.

The cereal and candy would provide a morning snack for the students -- but some of them were given no choice between the two.

If it didn't seem fair, that was the point.

The students were participants in a poverty simulation led by Karen Patterson, a field coordinator for the Grandview-based Partnerships Make a Difference.

The organization sponsors the Growing Together Service-Learning Network, which Grandview City Schools has joined.

Partnerships Make a Difference's mission is to promote and expand the use of service learning -- or lessons that incorporate community service and awareness -- in schools, Patterson said.

Each of the organization's staff members is a licensed teacher who provides schools with the assistance they need, whether it is a professional-development program or activities involving one classroom or all grade levels, she said.

Last month, Patterson led a poverty simulation for fifth-grade students at Edison Intermediate/Larson Middle School.

During the poverty simulation at Stevenson, Patterson directed students holding red strips of paper to fill one cup with their choice of cereal, candy or a combination of both.

Students with blue pieces of paper could fill their cup only with Cheerios and had to rely on the kindness of their more-fortunate classmates willing to share their candy.

"The students had no idea what was happening," first-grade teacher Pam Patterson said. "I found it really interesting to watch their reaction."

Students with the blue paper kept asking why they couldn't have candy, she said.

When asked to describe how they felt about the inequality, students used words such as bad and sad and called the situation unfair.

One of every five students were given blue strips of paper, matching the real-life number of Ohio children who experience "food insecurity," Karen Patterson said.

The term refers to individuals and families who must skip meals, eat less than they need or have a limited choice for their meals, she said.

"The goal of this poverty simulation is to introduce to students the idea that not everyone is able to choose everything they want to eat, often because they can't afford it," she said.

"It's a hard concept for 7-year-olds to understand," Pam Patterson said. "Grandview is a community of privilege."

The poverty simulation was the kickoff activity to an effort to introduce service learning to the first-grade curriculum, she said.

Grandview City Schools is putting a focus on integrating service learning across all grade levels, she said.

"Our focus at Stevenson is beginning with the first grade," Pam Patterson said.

Food and hunger are real-life issues that affect everyone, she said.

After they returned to their classrooms, teachers led first-graders in a discussion of how they felt about the unequal division of the food and how they were assigned either full or limited choice, Pam Patterson said. Students also wrote about their reaction.

During the rest of the school year, first-grade teachers will continue to explore ways of incorporating service learning into the curriculum, she said.

In October, the students will visit the Heart to Heart food pantry at First Community Church, Pam Patterson said.

"One idea we're considering is placing bags along the route and asking people to put different kinds of food the pantry needs in the bags," she said. "As we walk to the pantry, the students would collect the bags and deliver them to Heart to Heart."

Karen Patterson said she will be available as a consultant to the first-grade teachers at Stevenson to help them develop their service-learning program throughout the year.