At one point, most of us have claimed to be starving college students, living off the stereotypical ramen noodles and instant mac and cheese. But what would you do if you were forced to choose between paying for food or your education?
More than 30 percent of clients served by Feeding America face that reality. The nonprofit has a network of food banks across the US that serves more than 46 million people annually. Even more alarming, over two-thirds of clients are confronted with choosing between food and utilities, transportation, and medical care, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Forty-six million is a staggering number that’s almost difficult to comprehend. So let’s localize that.
Food insecurity, or inconsistent access to reliable food due to lack of money or other resources, is an equally scary truth in rural areas of the country. In places where you’re more likely to pass a cornfield than a taxicab, Feeding America reports more than 3 million households are considered food insecure.
Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2015 report states that in Cumberland County, where Shippensburg University is situated, 11.5 percent of the population, or 27,240 individuals, are making those critical choices every day. That’s nearly four times the university’s enrollment. In Franklin County, which also covers part of Shippensburg, it’s almost 18,000 people.
Thankfully, as Christina Qawasmy ’16 said, “there are plenty of things that can be done in the community to help.”
Qawasmy is just one of several members of the university and local community focused on easing that burden and raising awareness of local food insecurity.
Repackaged with purpose
In 2014, Qawasmy took a social work class called Practice with Organizations and Communities. Students were required to design and complete a project focused on community and organizational change. One of the organizations suggested in class was the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a student-driven nonprofit that donates surplus campus food to hungry Americans.
Qawasmy jumped at the opportunity. “I’ve always had a passion to fight food insecurity and waste in the dining halls. This hits both,” she said.
Nick Iula, resident district manager at Reisner Dining Hall, first learned of FRN during a mini presentation at a conference he attended a few years ago. Ever since, he’s been looking for the right time to launch the program at Ship.
“To me, it just makes sense on so many levels,” Iula said. “There are so many positives to this—it helps society, it helps the environment, and it gets students involved in the community.”
FRN provided training, supplies, and support to develop a pilot program at Ship during spring 2014. Every Friday, the group collected excess wholesome food from one meal at Reisner and packaged it in reusable containers. The meals were then delivered to the First Church of God annex in Shippensburg to supplement the church’s free Friday supper.
According to Iula, Ship Dining Services has a nineteen-day meal rotation and maintains accurate product records of what they serve. Although they are always fine-tuning orders, plenty of outside factors affect when and what students eat, including other dining options, weather, and stress.
“We have so many options at Reisner Dining Hall,” Iula said. “We serve 1,000 kids for dinner, and we don’t know if 600 of them will want hot dogs that night.”
Donating just one meal from Reisner each week over the course of the academic year led to 900 pounds of total donations to local needy families.
“After our first recovery, when we went to the church and saw the people who are receiving food, it hits you,” Qawasmy said. “When I actually got into the recovery process, that’s when I realized we need to do this.”
Larry and Kathy Russell have organized the free Friday meals for about five years through First Church at the annex on the corner of King and Prince streets. They dedicate more than a day to planning, cooking, and setting up each meal. First Church is one of about five local churches that offer meals to those in need nearly every night of the week.
“We serve between 110 and 120 meals, not including take out,” Larry said. “It’s open to the community. Most people who come are people who can use a meal.”
The people served at First Church vary. Some return every week. Others are down on their luck and need temporary assistance, Kathy said. One man had four or five children and lost his job. He told her once he found employment, he wouldn’t come back, and that seemed to be the case. Larry has served many transits, too.
“One guy looked just like Santa Clause and started singing Christmas carols to the children,” he said. “He needed a bus ticket, so I got him to Harrisburg. …A couple months later, I got a check for the bus money. He just needed a meal and a place to stay.”
The prepackaged donations through Ship’s FRN program provide greater variety and takeout options for those who are served, Kathy said. They also act as a nutritious meal option that might be cost prohibitive at home.
The Russells are thrilled to receive both food donations and volunteers from the university. Food insecurity is a local issue that many are blind to, Kathy said. “Volunteering will help (students) in the future be more aware of issues in their community.”
What started as a class project continues to flourish. After overcoming some growing pains, the program became recognized by the student senate as an official club last spring and now has twenty-five members. Qawasmy is proud to have laid its foundation and pass on her responsibilities. The hope is to expand the program to additional meals and dining halls.
“Being on campus, we are very secluded. We, as students, don’t really know or see the need there is,” she said. “I encourage volunteers to go out and talk to the people. Hear their stories and understand what they’re going through.”
A fresh approach
About 44 percent, or roughly 155,000 acres of land in Cumberland County is agricultural, according to a 2012 census of agriculture. This time of year, the roads are peppered with produce stands that offer everything from plump tomatoes to juicy peaches.
Although local produce is abundant, it’s just out of reach for thousands of residents who struggle with food insecurity. Unfortunately, healthy food is typically the most expensive.
Shippensburg Product and Outreach (SPO) aims to change that. Years ago, Suzanne Shuey and several retired friends volunteered at King's Kettle Food Pantry in Shippensburg. The pantry provides nonperishable food items to community members in need, but didn’t have the capacity to store fresh produce.
In 2008, the group of volunteers started working with Project Share in Chambersburg for guidance to develop what would become SPO. They eventually rented space at Katie’s Place on Penn Street and began offering fresh produce and eggs to eligible community members on Tuesday evenings.
“It’s amazing how fast we’ve grown,” Shuey said.
Some of SPO’s produce is collected from donations to King’s Kettle or brought at auction, but the organization heavily relies on community contributions. Their tagline, “Grow a row for SPO,” encourages local gardeners and farmers to “plant an extra row of fruit and veggies for Shippensburg Produce and Outreach, and share the harvest with friends in need.”
This past year, the Shippensburg University Farm Club did just that. When the farm club first began, Dr. Heather Sahli, associate professor of biology and club advisor, said, “We really wanted to give back to the community. Our mission from the beginning was to help community members in need by providing this organic produce.”
Last year, the farm moved from a small space by the SU Foundation to a one-acre plot off Adams Drive near the Cora I. Grove Spiritual Center. Jessica Wallace, a graduate assistant working with the farm, helped develop a plan to determine what would be planted and who would maintain it. Each Tuesday, they harvest produce and deliver it to SPO.
“Large quantities of produce, like fresh, leafy greens, we sell to the dining halls on campus. SPO gets smaller amounts of potatoes, onions, carrots—staples that people need,” Wallace said. “The numbers really jump for people in need of fresh food. SPO’s mission is to provide that healthy produce they aren’t getting from a food pantry.”
This past year, the farm club donated 516 pounds of produce to SPO, Wallace said.
Thanks to this and other community donations, SPO serves about 100 households year round every Tuesday night. According to Shuey, in 2014 the organization provided 107,000 pounds of healthy food to more than 1,000 individuals.
Those who participate in the supplemental food programs on Tuesday nights receive five pounds of food that consist of staples such as eggs, potatoes, and onions as well as a variety of other items including cabbage, sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, apple, oranges, kale, and lettuce. The five-pound bag is based off a family of four, but Shuey said if people don’t need as much, they take less and leave it for other families.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” Shuey said of the Tuesday night food program. “It’s amazing for young people to see that people do this for produce. There’s a change in their mindset—everyone needs to eat nutritiously.”
Initially, Shuey said older people on social security came. Now, most clients are between the ages of twenty and forty-five. “It’s sad to see the young families,” she said. “College students see that these people want to eat healthy, they deserve to eat healthy, and they are kind, tolerant, and polite.”
Wallace said the farm club also educates local elementary school children at the farm. Last spring, more than 100 students visited the farm. “This connects the college and the community, creating a common ground to grow,” she said. “It’s all food that goes back to the community.”
Hunger is real
There’s no question in Pastor JR Wells’ mind why King's Kettle Food Pantry is an essential service to the Shippensburg community. Having grown up in the “ghettos of Baltimore,” he said he knows what it’s like to go hungry.
“This means a lot to me. I look at the people standing in line and think about where I came from,” he said.
When Wells was a child, it wasn’t unusual that a sandwich consisted of mayo on moldy bread. Whether in Baltimore or Shippensburg, he doesn’t want any child to experience that.
“Our goal is to help those in need. That’s our motto,” he said. “We won’t turn anyone away.”
King's Kettle has been a staple in the community for twenty-four years. When Wells first started the service through his church, they were helping a handful of families. The need continued to grow, and today, the pantry serves about 400 families a month. Last year, they provided more than 650,000 pounds of food to clients—his go-big-or-go-home goal is to surpass one million pounds in a year.
“Every time I tell somebody what we do here and how many people come, they find it unbelievable.”
Wells, a former employee of the university, always needs volunteers and eagerly accepts help from the university community. For the past five years during homecoming weekend, the SU Alumni Association has coordinated a community service activity with King's Kettle. At least a dozen alumni typically volunteer, and over the past two years, about twenty members of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity have helped as well, said Lorie Davis, assistant director in University Relations.
“The Alumni Association knows how the university can impact the community—both good and bad. We believe it’s the Alumni Association’s job to give back to the members of the community in a variety of ways—by visiting local businesses, eating at restaurants downtown, attending local events, and volunteering,” Davis said. “King's Kettle is an organization that is highly respected within the Shippensburg community, and they are known for providing an excellent service to those in need.”
Students from nearly every sorority and fraternity as well as several other campus groups also provide service at least once a year, Wells said. Volunteers restock shelves, separate bulk items into individual bags, and rotate supplies, among other jobs. At the end of each academic year, students also collect and donate supplies gathered from the residence halls.
“Some students come back on a regular basis. It means a lot to us,” Wells said. “Now that the students are gone, we know it. We lose a lot of help over the summer.”
The real eye-opener is volunteering on a Tuesday night. King's Kettle distributes their donations to clients the first, second, and third Tuesday of each month from 5:00 to 6:00PM. People start lining up as early as 1:00PM. Each family of four receives eighteen to twenty pounds of groceries a month.
According to Wells, many of the clients frequenting Kings Kettle are single parents or senior citizens. Others are on food stamps or need temporary help after losing a job.
Whatever the situation, he won’t judge. He’s been there, and he just wants to help.
“When (volunteers) come here, they see this is where the rubber hits the road," Wells said.