Campus food service gives back

Answering the big questions involving campus dining involvement in community outreach

When a trio of students at Christopher Newport University in Virginia wanted to start a program to collect leftover food from the dining halls each night and deliver it to a rescue mission, Kevin Ososkie had some questions.

As director of the university’s dining services, he knew the students were passionate enough to follow through, but how would they deliver the meals? How would food safety be ensured? Most of all, would the fledgling program end when the three graduated?

“Giving back to the community is a beautiful thing, but you also have to keep all the moving parts in mind,” Ososkie says. “Before we took the leap into granting their request, we had to make sure that we thought far in advance to how this effort would roll out over the next few years.”

Ososkie is far from alone in recognizing that challenges come with community outreach. From setting up a program to running it with minimal cost to getting students involved, each effort presents its own set of questions.

Here are some common issues around dining-related service programs and the actions campus administrators have taken to solve them.

With so many options, what’s the best way to choose an outreach effort?

From student proposals to community requests to nonprofit partnerships, outreach can be a full-time job. One key to choosing the right program is sticking to a central theme beyond “giving back,” says Melissa Strain, marketing manager for dining services at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

“Our theme is sustainability, and we organize many of our dining service efforts around that,” she says. For example, the college partners with a farm about 20 miles from campus, and all produce comes from that operation. Food scraps and waste are sent back for compost.

Once a year, the college holds a major “farm to fork” dinner that usually brings in about $2,000 for community outreach programs. The farm is supported by purchasing and student volunteer labor days, while other programs get the funding needed to keep running.

William & Mary also lets student vote on outreach efforts. Picking a handful of potential causes and asking students to choose can significantly increase participation because it makes them feel invested in the outcome.

How do you minimize the cost to the institution?

At Christopher Newport, the students who in 2013 started the original effort—now called The CNU Food Cooperative, or Food Fighters—handled most of the labor, including food delivery. They obtained food-grade containers from the rescue mission they served, and dining staff put appropriate leftovers into them.

To ensure safety, the hot food must be out in the dining hall for less than half an hour to be considered, since it will be transported—unlike other cafeteria-style food that could be out for longer but must be maintained at a steady temperature. It’s then delivered to the mission within four hours, Ososkie says. The dining staff time is minimal, especially since students handle transport.

“The way to reduce costs is to let the students lead,” he says. “When they handle the logistics, it’s not much impact for us. Plus, it reflects very positively on the university. We’re recognized for the effort, and we significantly reduce food waste. Everybody wins.”

At William & Mary, costs are minimized through partnerships with local organizations and employee volunteerism, Strain says.

“We run a very lean operation and we don’t have an abundance of leftovers, so we look for other ways to help,” she says. For example, the recent farm-to-fork dinner donations went to the Food Recovery Network, a national student group with a chapter on the William & Mary campus.

Dining service employees also go to local food kitchens to help serve, or offer to work at events for nonprofits. “Many times, it’s easier to donate time than leftover food or funds,” Strain says. “Fortunately our dining staff and students are very involved with volunteering.”

What happens when student program leaders graduate?

For many colleges and universities, this is one of the trickiest questions. Ososkie admits that he believed the program would end when the founders graduated in 2014. Instead, those students recruited others and now it’s still going strong, with about a dozen students taking “shifts” to cover every evening.

At Providence College, the two students who started the Friar Food Rescue program in 2012 arranged for unused food to be collected and delivered to areas of need throughout Providence.

When they were poised to graduate, they found others to take over. And as the program expanded, those new volunteers sought additional assistance from campus ministries, which brought in a fresh wave of help, says Stu Gerhardt, manager of dining services.

When students proposed broadening the program to even more locations, they asked for more support. The college’s Feinstein Institute for Public Service now recruits volunteers, coordinates partnerships with local food kitchens and handles logistics.

“Student succession doesn’t always work,” says Gerhardt, adding that the transition from student-run group to institution-led effort has been seamless since the program evolved over time and expanded gradually. “But when you tap into the interests and resources of other parts of the college, that can be a large driver for success in keeping a program going.”

Can food service outreach be tied to post-college success?

Besides providing food or funds, colleges may want to consider turning their dining service kitchens into ersatz classrooms. That’s been the tactic at SUNY Geneseo, which has run a program over the past six years to provide job-training opportunities.

LIVES (Learning Independence, Vocational and Educational Skills) trains students with intellectual or developmental disabilities in careers that fit their interests. There are currently 11 students from the program interning in the dining halls and cafÁ©s.

The experience is about much more than culinary topics. These students learn relationship-building, communication and accountability, says Jonna Anne, the director of culinary operations.

“Knowing those aspects in a job is just as important as having specific kitchen skills,” she says. “Those aren’t always things you learn in a classroom. This gives them confidence they may not have had before, and that can translate into becoming gainfully employed later.”

No matter what type of issues might crop up along the way, many colleges and universities find that it’s absolutely worth the effort to coordinate outreach.

“Every school is part of a community,” says Strain, at the College of William & Mary. “We have a responsibility to step up and truly be an active member in that community.”

Harnessing student passion and staff engagement—while still keeping outreach costs on the modest side—is a tremendous benefit for an institution, she adds. “Everyone feels good about programs that help others.”

More fresh ideas for giving back

  • Join an existing effort. Swipe Out Hunger is a nonprofit that allows students to donate meal plan dollars toward fighting hunger in their communities. As of spring 2016, there were 20 campus chapters nationwide. But the effort doesn’t work for everyone—institutions that budget for unused points at the end of a semester may find the program challenging in terms of lost revenue. That just highlights the need to consider the long-term effects of any food-based outreach program.
  • Organize an annual campaign. Student clubs can hold fundraisers and food donation drives, and transport the goods to local nonprofits. This can be especially effective if tied to an event. For example, a “Stop Hunger at Homecoming” campaign can bolster support at a time when school spirit is especially high.
  • Help a local farm help the community. Surplus crop transport can be done if a higher ed institution has partnered with a local farm or produce wholesaler. The university can organize a student work crew that picks and transports “excess” produce from a farm.

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-area writer covering higher education as well as health, wellness and food.


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