School won't start for another 30 minutes at Sunset Ridge Elementary in Overland Park, yet a dozen or so elementary students fan out inside Mrs. Kleinmann's classroom.
Scissors in hand, they sit three or four to a table — a mom sitting among them or standing nearby — with stacks of advertisements scattered everywhere. Coupons go in one pile, fliers and ads in another.
Sort first. Then cut.
"We have a system going here," calls out parent Madeleine Hallberg as she snips out a butter coupon. "It's getting faster and faster every week."
As couponing and strategic shopping catch on across the nation, many are realizing they can put savvy saving to use not only for themselves but also for needy families, charities and other groups that rely on donations. If you can get a can of SpaghettiOs for free or really cheap, why not get 10 and take half to a food pantry?
Even kids can get in on it.
For the past four months, children and parents have met inside Jenny Kleinmann's kindergarten room before school every Monday for the Cut Out Hunger Club. Led by Kleinmann and parent Maureen Welsh, the group gleans coupons from the Sunday newspaper that the two then use to get free or cheap food and toiletries.
Once they have a load of goods, everything goes to charity. Either a domestic violence shelter or a pantry that serves Johnson County families, including some in the Blue Valley School District. Maybe even kids who go to Sunset Ridge, near 151st Street and Antioch Road.
"It's important that we tell them it's going to kids that don't necessarily have what they have, the cereals and pancakes each morning ..." Welsh says.
"We know there are kids in this school being directly impacted by the economy. And that gives us that much more of an incentive to do this."
The hunger club pairs coupons with shopping strategies, like watching sales and price matching. And it has donated $6,000 worth of items, including pasta, chips, hot dogs, peanut butter and toothpaste.
According to a recent Map the Meal Gap study, which breaks down childhood hunger numbers by state and county, more than 25,000 children in Johnson County live in homes where there isn't always enough food. In suburbs across the country, where people are often more financially stable, families are feeling the pressures of food insecurity more than ever before. Once well-off families now suffer because of lost jobs and mounting debt.
Julie Marshall manages the Blue Valley Multi-Service Center pantry at 151st Street and Metcalf Avenue and sees families who used to donate now coming in for donations.
When Marshall first heard that the Sunset Ridge kids were clipping coupons to help her pantry, she figured the club would donate a few things. Now, when she sees Kleinmann or Welsh come through the door, she can't help but smile.
"It's amazing how much it has stocked my shelves," Marshall says. "The Hunger Club has made a big difference for our pantry."
Call them Santa's secret little helpers.
Couponers in Kansas City and across the country have been scoring great buys on groceries and clothing for weeks, even months, to help out food pantries, shelters and church collections.
"I think it's just the natural next step when you're looking to save your family money," says Julie McKinley of Lee's Summit, author of the blog Mykansascitymommy.com.
"I know with my family, we wouldn't be able to do any kind of donation (if not) for couponing because we just don't have it at this time of year. It's a great way to do more than you would be able to otherwise."
Tracie Fobes of Raymore stuffed three large boxes and a big plastic bag full of groceries and clothes she bought with coupons and Kohl's cash.
Actually, Fobes got the paper towels, cleaning supplies, facial tissues, Downey fabric softener and an 18-roll pack of Charmin for free with coupons. And, with $135 in Kohl's cash, she bought socks, underwear, pajamas, coats, hats, gloves and outfits for the two boys and little girl in the family she adopted for the holidays through her church.
"You don't have to have a lot of money to help someone," says Fobes, a stay-at-home mom with three children.
She started couponing four years ago when, through a money makeover program, she and her husband realized they were spending way too much on groceries.
"I started doing research on how we could spend less with coupons, and then I started sharing how to get real good deals with other moms on forums across the country," she says.
Her blog, Pennypinchinmom.com, racks up more than 450,000 page views every month.
It bothers Fobes and other couponers that a certain TV show about extreme couponing showcases coupon clippers who clear grocery shelves and stash items in their homes. "There's such a negative connotation that couponers are greedy," says Fobes. "Those are a select few."
Couponing for charity has become second nature for Sara Keenan, a Brookside wife and mother of two. Whenever she finds a really good deal on something, she buys extra to donate. From food drives to year-round collections hosted by churches, "it's not very hard to find a place that will take a donation."
The need this year is great, says Fobes. "And I figure, if I have been slightly blessed, this is my chance to help someone else," she says. "And you feel good. It's a natural high, if you will."
Kleinmann figured she could get kids at Sunset Ridge to cut coupons for charity. She put an item in a school newsletter asking parents if they wanted to help.
She got a response from one mom: Welsh, a lawyer by trade who became a stay-at-home mom when her family moved here from Arizona. Going from two incomes to one, she'd become an avid coupon clipper, and now owns her own grocery price-matching business.
"And she's taken it to a whole new level," Kleinmann says.
Residents at Olathe Towers apartments, where Kleinmann's grandmother lives, save their coupons for the school. Others also bring some in.
Some kids come on Monday mornings because their moms want them to. Others say they like to cut, sort and, as 7-year-old Isabelle Berutti puts it, "help people."
Kleinmann and Welsh want to see the club go further. If only five or six schools across the metro would adopt their own Cut Out Hunger Clubs ...
"Think of the people we could help," says Welsh, who launched kcstrategicshopping.com in December.
Also, she and Kleinmann say, think of all the kids like first-grader Ashton Larson learning how easy it is to give to other people.
Ashton, 6, is a whiz at coupon know-how.
"You can't cut the codes," he says. "Because if you do, you can't scan it.
"It doesn't matter if you cut a word," he says and starts to point at the coupon's bar code. "This part matters."
Ashton says he tries to come every Monday, except if his family is on vacation or if he stays up late — "to midnight" — the night before. "Believe it or not, I've been doing this since kindergarten.
"My mom wants me to be a good man when I grow up. And that's why I started helping people."