On any given Wednesday during the academic year, a group of students can be found cooking up a storm in lower Belk Dining Hall. Clad in aprons, hairnets, gloves, and non-slip shoes, they are hard at work preparing nutritious dishes from a menu they developed the day before. And their end result will be much more than just a meal.
As volunteers for Campus Kitchens at Meredith College, a student-run organization recently established on campus, they’re meeting a need in the community – in a healthy and sustainable way.
The Campus Kitchens Project is a national organization based in Washington, D.C., that empowers student volunteers to fight hunger and food waste in their community. Campus Kitchens volunteers around the country transform unused food into meals that are delivered to local agencies serving those in need. At Meredith, volunteers prepare meals that feed approximately 60 underserved K-12 students who attend an afterschool program at the Kentwood Learning Center in Raleigh.
Peggy Ross, assistant director of student leadership and service, sat in on a session about Campus Kitchens while attending a conference in 2012. As she learned more about the program, she became increasingly convinced that that the culture and values of Meredith were a perfect match for the mission and goals of the Campus Kitchens Project.
With Meredith’s strong focus on experiential and service learning, as well as its commitment to enriching quality of life – for students, faculty, staff, and the community – bringing Campus Kitchens to the College seemed like an ideal fit.
Ross left the conference excited and determined. “The entire conversation on the drive back from the conference was ‘if we could just get this to our campus,’” said Ross. “I couldn’t wait to get back and see how we could do it.”
She knew exactly where to go for support. “The poverty initiative was the perfect place to start,” said Ross.
Led by Meredith’s Chaplain Rev. Stacy Pardue, the College’s poverty initiative – known as the Children’s Collaborative of Wake County – works with community partners to create a cradle-to-career pipeline of services, which aims to break the cycle of generational poverty in the nearby Kentwood neighborhood.
Ross contacted Pardue to discuss how they could work together to implement Campus Kitchens on Meredith’s campus through the Collaborative.
“I was very taken with the whole project and could see how it would tie in nicely with the Children’s Collaborative of Wake County,” said Pardue. “The community engagement and leadership development components seemed like a great opportunity for Meredith students to get involved, and we loved the food reuse piece of it, too.”
The Collaborative partners with Telamon Head Start, Communities in Schools, and Wake County schools to provide parenting programs, home visitation case management, preschool education, connections with public school officials, and an afterschool homework help and weekend tutoring program. The addition of Campus Kitchens rounded out the programming offered by including a food insecurity and nutrition education component to the pipeline of services.
“One of the things I love about working with college students is that they are really concerned and engaged in the community and in the world, and Campus Kitchens hits on a number of different issues they care about: sustainability, the environment, food reuse, poverty, and children,” said Pardue.
Getting students involved in the program was essential to its success. So when Chapel intern Amy Brock, ’14 (MAT), was appointed executive coordinator for Campus Kitchens at Meredith, her first order of business was interviewing students to serve on the student leadership team.
Creating interest in the program and recruiting student volunteers was easier than she anticipated. “Campus Kitchens speaks for itself,” Brock said. “Once we announced the program, people just started coming [to volunteer]. Being able to do something on campus that benefits the community is appealing.”
The buy-in among students, particularly those studying nutrition, exceeded initial expectations. Brock assembled a student leadership team consisting of four undergraduate food and nutrition students and four graduate nutrition students. They’re responsible for assessing what food has been donated each week from community partners and creating a nutritious menu around those ingredients.
At Meredith, the project partners with Aramark, the College’s campus dining partner, which donates the kitchen space and cooking equipment used by the volunteers, as well as the Fresh Market at Cameron Village and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which donate the ingredients for all meals.
“The food bank takes donations of leftover food from many grocery stores in the area,” said Pardue. “When you think of a food bank, you typically think of canned goods, but there’s a significant amount of fresh food that’s going to be thrown out if it’s not picked up and used.”
Because every meal prepared in a Campus Kitchen must meet specific nutrition criteria, menu planning is an ideal way for nutrition students to apply what they learn in the classroom.
Kate Jablonski, ’16, is a food and nutrition major who serves on the student leadership team. “I definitely draw on what I’m learning in class to be able to create a balanced meal,” she said.
The interdisciplinary nature of the project means that nutrition students aren’t the only ones experiencing the benefits of being involved with Campus Kitchens. Nideara Tucker, ’16, is a criminology and sociology double major who’s “lost count” of how many times she’s volunteered for Campus Kitchens at Meredith.
Her volunteer experience has reinforced the lessons she’s learned in the classroom. “You have to stretch your imagination when you don’t have an abundance of materials,” she said.
And while Tucker enjoys cooking – making breadcrumbs is a personal favorite – she is aware that her efforts go beyond herself. “Volunteer work, as opposed to charity, is about creating a bond,” she said. “Building a partnership and being a part of meeting someone’s basic needs is really empowering.”
Anyone involved in bringing Campus Kitchens to Meredith will say that’s what they hoped student volunteers would get out of the experience.
“One of the critical features of a college education is the understanding that the benefits of that education extend far beyond personal development and well-being,” said President Jo Allen, ’80. “The history of higher education in America has been articulately defined as a ‘social contract’ between our colleges and universities and our society with the very clear message that having more college educated citizens is a direct link to a nation’s better future. We see the numbers of service opportunities on our campus as critical elements of that social contract.”
Allen, along with other members of the College’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT), showed support for the program by volunteering in February. “We wanted to experience this new program and to offer our own ways of giving back to our community,” said Allen.
Jablonski served as shift captain during that particular session. “It was really exciting when the Executive Leadership Team came,” she said. “To know that they support us enough to come and spend two hours of their Wednesday afternoon was really meaningful.”
Working alongside ELT gave Jablonski a chance to assert her leadership skills in a new way. “It felt weird at first to be telling the president of my college what to do, but it was such a cool way to interact and get to know those who make Meredith so great,” she said.
While each shift requires a leader, like Jablonski, the shift captains aren’t the only ones demonstrating leadership skills. Because it’s student-led, every position offers volunteers the opportunity to gain hands-on leadership experience.
Each week, volunteers recover donated food, plan menus, prepare and deliver the meals, and participate in the nutrition education component of the program. All volunteers are required to know and follow general and food safety protocols – which the shift captain is ultimately responsible for enforcing.
Several volunteers, along with Pardue, Ross, and Brock, have earned the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe® food safety certification. Those certified took the national certification exam after attending multiple sessions of Assistant Professor of Nutrition Beth Gankofskie’s Food Service Management Systems course. As a result, at least two members of each cooking shift have passed the ServSafe training.
For Gankofskie, ensuring that the volunteers were educated in the importance of food safety and the nutritional code of ethics was imperative. “Safety first, service second,” she said. “These volunteers have the responsibility of healthfully and safely feeding people – they can’t feed them food that’s compromised.”
Pardue agreed. “The food safety and sanitation piece is a great learning tool for everybody.”
And learning is a big part of Campus Kitchens at Meredith. After each meal is served, the students at the learning center are given a lesson in nutrition education. They’re taught about making healthy choices, portion control, and food groups in an effort to combat the effects of food insecurity.
“It’s great to see how the kids respond to the food that we bring each week and how they respond to the nutrition education component – and for us to see how it all works together,” said Jablonski.
So how do the students at Kentwood feel about Campus Kitchens? “They are loving it,” said Pardue.
“The kids are always willing to try new things,” said Jablonski. “They don’t always like everything, but we’ve had a lot of success!”
One successful moment stands out as particularly memorable for Ross.
“One of the first times a group from Meredith served a meal at the afterschool program, a student said, ‘This is heaven in my mouth,’” she recalled. “When you get feedback like that, you know you’re doing the right thing.”
With an average per-capita household income of $12,000, residents in the Kentwood community run a high risk of experiencing food insecurity.
The USDA’s report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2012, revealed that North Carolina ranks 5th in food insecurity in the nation, with 17 percent of the state’s population experiencing food insecurity. The national average is 15 percent.
The USDA defines food insecurity as meaning “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” Barriers to obtaining enough food include financial constraints, the high cost of a nutritious diet, and limited access to stores with more variety and lower prices.
Campus Kitchens at Meredith works to strengthen the community by building relationships with and helping to meet the needs of citizens who are experiencing food insecurity by providing nutritionally sound meals and continual support.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Meredith Magazine.