Solving the hunger issue

Torrie Sweeney and Alysha Allen volunteer at Campus Kitchen on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

Alex Delaney-Gesing

Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, a person is food insecure when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, said Ann Gosky, director of Kent State’s Office of Experiential Education and Civic Engagement.

This can be true for anyone: children, adults, families and college students. For young adults away at college, making sure they have enough food can be a struggle.

Some students live in dorms and have meal plans and must carefully portion out their expenses. If they aren’t careful, they won’t have enough money for food toward the end of the semester. Others live off campus and must choose between paying their monthly rent and bills or eating enough food on a daily basis.

This is what food insecurity on campus can look like.

A nationwide issue, food insecurity has affected Kent State’s main campus. In response, members of the university community helped establish Campus Kitchen on the second floor of Beall Hall in 2011.

The kitchen is a part of the nationwide Campus Kitchens Project founded in 2001 and implemented on 53 college campuses across the United States. The project’s goal is to give those in the local and university communities access to well-balanced meals.

The university awarded a $15,000 grant to a handful of students in 2011 who were inspired to start their own kitchen after visiting a Campus Kitchen in Washington D.C. The group’s efforts made Kent State the first of only three Ohio colleges to establish a kitchen. Walsh University launched its own kitchen in 2015, and Baldwin Wallace University followed in 2016.    

Each week, an estimated 50 volunteers — including students, faculty and community members — contribute to making, serving and delivering meals off campus to community members in need, according to Alex Drungil, co-manager of Campus Kitchen.

Cooking shifts are held every Tuesday from 3 to 7 p.m., and on the first Friday of each month, from 2 to 5 p.m. The meals prepared during these hours are served directly on campus in the kitchen or sent on to various locations geared toward supplying hot meals and food pantries to community members in need. These locations include Kent Social Services, the Center of Hope and Upper Room Ministries in Ravenna, as well as the Springtime of Hope in Akron.

“We prepare about 300 meals a week — 230 of which go to community members in Portage County,” said Drungil, a public health graduate student at Kent State.

About 70 of the 300 meals prepared each week by Campus Kitchen are taken to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank in Summit County, Drungil said.

The Akron-based food bank serves as a meal distribution center for those in need at locations in Portage, Summit and six other Northeast Ohio counties.

Campus Kitchen is one of several organizations — including corporate food donors, state and federal food assistance programs and the national food bank Feeding America — that donates meals to the food bank. From there, the food is distributed to various agencies around the region and given to individuals and families in need.

Campus Kitchen recovers anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds of food each week, Gosky, the project’s adviser, said. Campus Kitchen receives a supply of leftover food from Dining Services on campus. In the community, donations come from local suppliers such as the Haymaker Farmers’ Market, as well as Trader Joe’s and Panera Bread.

Volunteers collect food leftover from the market and grocers, and then transport it back to Campus Kitchen. Trader Joe’s and Panera Bread contribute leftover dishes including various forms of meat, grains and produce.    

“From our community partners, Trader Joe’s is the most consistent (supplier),” Gosky said.

The Kent-based farmers’ market typically provides the kitchen with fresh and seasonal produce, with the amount per week varying based on the season, Gosky said. Summer squash, berries, peaches, peppers and tomatoes are in an abundance during the warmer months, while winter squash, potatoes, onions, beets, apples and other items are featured as the weather cools.

The meals prepared each week depend entirely on the food recovered from the kitchen’s suppliers. Typically, though, Drungil said staffers ensure that plates contain all food groups.

“We like to keep them as balanced as possible with a protein, a carbohydrate, a fruit, a vegetable and then dessert,” Drungil said.              

As with the meals, desserts can depend entirely on the seasonal ingredients available.

During the 2015-16 school year, Campus Kitchen collected almost 350,000 pounds of food from its local suppliers — creating an estimated 17,000 meals to those in need, according to the kitchen’s financial reports.

Across the nation, the Campus Kitchens Project recovered nearly 7 million pounds of food and prepared nearly 3 million meals since it was established 15 years ago, according to the organization’s online tracker.

From college students to entire families, food insecurity can affect all demographics. One in seven Americans are considered food insecure, the Campus Kitchens Project reported.

An estimated 12.7 percent of all households across the U.S. — 15.8 million households — were categorized as food insecure at some point in 2015, according to a report released by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Committee. That’s 42.2 million people living in households with very low food insecurity.

In 2015, Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit organization with a network of 200 food banks, reported an estimated 1.9 million people in Ohio were classified as food insecure — 16.8 percent of the state population.

The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank reported that from Portage County’s population of just over 161,000, nearly 15 percent, 23,930 people, could be categorized as food insecure in 2015.

Of that number, 30 percent — just 7,500 — of students in pre-kindergarten through high school go hungry in the county on a daily basis, a sum larger than the 6,500 Kent State students living on the main campus, according to the university’s facts and figures data.

The majority of student volunteers at Campus Kitchen come from the College of Public Health, Drungil said. Some are food-insecure students who take advantage of the food resources available through the kitchen by exchanging hours served for an allotment of food each week.

A portion of the students who visit Campus Kitchen often come toward the end of the semester, Gosky said.

“There are those students on a dining plan who may run out of money,” she said. “They might be making decisions like many members of the community do … (and) say ‘Okay, I have rent to pay (and) bills.’ Sometimes you have to divvy up the things you have to pay. And sometimes food doesn’t come out on top.”

While there is a small population of students on campus who make use of the kitchen, Drungil said not nearly as many who should take advantage of it do.

“Stigma, I would say … is a huge thing,” he said. “I think (a lot of students) think that since they can afford college, then they should be able to afford food.”

There might be some students who are more sensitive to their situation, and are embarrassed about it, Drungil said. “That keeps them away.”

A drawback of Campus Kitchen is its lack of advertisement geared toward the campus community. Not a lot of students realize the resources they can turn to if they’re struggling, Drungil said.

“I think we could be doing more,” he said. “We could figure out a way to market better to students who want to come in and get food.”

The issue with marketing to the campus community is the unknown number of students who would make use of free meals, a concern Drungil said that Campus Kitchen might not be able to keep up with and provide enough meals demanded of it.

“We just don’t know how many students we would actually have and how much we could handle,” Drungil said. “But that’s hopefully in the near future … (figuring) out a system.”

Gosky said a priority of the Campus Kitchen is addressing food insecurity among students, as well as providing an outlet for student volunteers in the kitchen to learn about the problems the community is facing.

“These kinds of actions break down stereotypes about who’s hungry and why they’re hungry,” Gosky said. “With the contact between students (who serve) and the food-insecure clients, I think they learn from each other … and that’s food for the soul, not necessarily food for the stomach.”

Alex Delaney-Gesing is the managing editor, contact her at [email protected]