The words “college students” and “free food” often go together, but two ELCA colleges—Augsburg in Minneapolis and Augustana in Rock Island, Ill.—are putting a twist on the stereotype. Both campuses have started chapters of Campus Kitchens, a national program that partners with universities and high schools to combat hunger and prevent food waste through student-run kitchens.
“Every school has a kitchen that is just sitting dark on the weekend going unused and [has] excess food that is going to waste,” said Laura Toscano, director of the Campus Kitchens Project. “Every school has student volunteers wanting to give back. Campus Kitchens puts all these resources together.”
With around 60 schools participating across the country, programs vary in size and focus depending on the communities they serve. But all share the same mission: to empower students to create sustainable solutions to food waste.
The Campus Kitchen program at Augustana launched in November after student leaders Ninna Mendoza and Mary Therese Thomas saw the need for a chapter at their school. Thanks to research conducted on campus, the two juniors knew that between 5 and 10 percent of Augustana students faced some type of food insecurity.
The realization led them to apply for a Hunger Education and Networking Grant through ELCA World Hunger, which awarded them $5,000 through the Campus Kitchens Project to get started. The program also partners with its campus dining hall and local grocery stores, which provide leftover food and older produce that can go toward the meals Campus Kitchen provides. On the day of an event, about a dozen volunteers set up inside the student center, offering meals on plates or in to-go boxes.
Serving the meals in such a high traffic area on campus was an intentional choice. “It lowers the boundary to get in and reach people so they don’t feel stigmatized,” Mendoza said. “It’s just available for anyone and everyone.”
Though the program is relatively new, there’s already been a good amount of interest from both students and faculty. Around 100 meals have been served during each event and word of mouth seems to be growing along with plans for the program.
“We have plans to start a campus cupboard with canned goods, hygiene products and basic supplies students would need,” Thomas said. “Eventually we’d also like to branch out to help lower food insecurity in our community.”
Started in 2005, Augsburg’s effort is one of the oldest Campus Kitchen programs in the country. The chapter serves its Cedar Riverside neighborhood and has expanded over the years to include community garden plots, mini farmers’ markets and educational programming, along with the 1,000 meals it serves each month to local organizations.
Allyson Green, Augsburg’s Campus Kitchen director, said the program has been a great tool for building relationships in a community that is richly diverse but also faces its share of inequity. “Looking at food was a way to explore those issues and build community through that,” she said.
The program has received a lot of institutional support from the school, which has allowed it to grow to the extent it has. “I think it’s one of the ways Augsburg lives out its mission to support students in becoming responsible stewards. It creates opportunity for students to explore those questions and discover the world outside the classroom.”
Last year the program received a $2,000 per year Domestic Hunger Grant for two years from World Hunger. The grant supports more paid internships, which Green said allows students to devote more time to the program.
“Especially in today’s political climate, students have really expressed gratitude for being able to be with people who are different from them and hear stories that are not heard in the media,” she said. “I’m grateful Campus Kitchen provides that opportunity for students.”
Students lead the way
For Ryan Cumming, ELCA program director for hunger education, these projects are a great way for the ELCA to partner with students.
“Our faith is most authentically expressed in relationship with the neighbor,” he said. “When it comes to these campuses, there’s creativity and passion that’s being showcased by students. We see it as way for the church to both invest and learn from the next generation of leadership.”
In March, World Hunger helped send one of Augustana’s student leaders to the fourth Food Waste and Hunger Summit, for which it’s also a supporting sponsor. Hosted by Campus Kitchens each year, the summit is a place for organizations fighting food waste and hunger to come together and share best practices.
“It’s really a great opportunity to hear from students deeply passionate about this work and learn what it takes to mold an effective intuitional response that’s going to outlast you,” Cumming said.
Toscano said, “Students come away with a better idea of issues that affect the field and action steps they can take back to their campuses.”
Despite the prevalence of food insecurity and waste in the U.S., the efforts of the Campus Kitchen programs seem to be paying off.
“What’s amazing about our work is that now on an annual basis we’re recovering around a million pounds of food that would have gone to waste,” Toscano said.
For student volunteers, it’s yet another reason to feel good about the work they’re doing on their campuses. “I think it’s definitely something students should be proud of,” Thomas said.