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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Campus Kitchens: Reducing wasted food while feeding the hungry

Dozens of Minnesota State Mankato students are engulfed in the Campus Kitchens phenomenon, the program that takes unused cafeteria food and distributes it to agencies that work with the homeless and hungry.

By Robb Murray, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 11/19/2005]

Photo by Pat Christman
MSU students working for Campus Kitchens project.
So far, 136 Minnesota State University students have signed up to volunteer for Campus Kitchens. MSU predicts it will be one of the most popular community involvement projects it has ever undertaken.

MANKATO — She came as just another work-study student looking for a way to earn some cash while going to school.

But instead of filing papers in some academic department on campus or answering phones, freshman Allie Houfer is happy to be doing something with a little more substance, even if it's not exactly what she had in mind.

Houfer is one of the dozens of students engulfed in the Campus Kitchens phenomenon at Minnesota State University, the program that takes unused cafeteria food and distributes it to a handful of agencies in town that work with the homeless and hungry.

The program is just getting started, but already they're delivering 110 meals per week. By mid-December, they'll be delivering more than 200. Eventually, possibly 200-400.

"It really has affected me," Houfer said. "I didn't expect it to hit me this hard."

Campus Kitchens came to MSU for the first time this semester. A $67,000 grant covers some expenses and the work of a graduate assistant, but most of what the program needs is donated, such as the residence hall food that each day is prepared but not put into a cafeteria line in MSU's residence hall kitchens.

So far, student volunteers have been easy to find — all volunteer slots are filled for the rest of the semester, and slots are filling up fast for next semester.

"We usually tell people, 'The one thing you're not going to have to worry about is volunteers,'" said Karen Borchert, the Campus Kitchens director, who came in from the home office in Washington, D.C., to check on the Mankato program. "Food is really basic. It appeals to a number of basic instincts. And this is fun work. It's social as much as anything else."

On Wednesday, hours after their classes had ended, a handful of students showed up at the Gage residence hall kitchen. This is where the meals are packaged for distribution.

Wearing Campus Kitchens T-shirts, they quickly organized a system to fill to-go boxes with pepper steak, sweet potatoes and chopped carrots.

Michelle Hansen pokes a thermometer deep into the meat to make sure it's cold enough. All Campus Kitchens food is kept and delivered cold for safety. A few of the students have taken a food handlers class to ensure food is properly handled.

"All of this would have been thrown away if we hadn't salvaged it," said Hansen, a freshman from Lewiston.

The consequences of excess food — or, more accurately, the lost opportunity of uneaten food — is something the students are becoming much more familiar after working with Campus Kitchens.

"I hardly waste anything anymore," Houfer said.

Ann Swartz, with MSU's Student Leadership Development and Service Learning Department, said Campus Kitchens is one of the best programs they ever had for students.

There are 136 students signed up to volunteer, she said, which is 136 opportunities to teach students what it means to be part of a community.

Beyond that, Swartz said there are real needs in the Mankato area that will be met with Campus Kitchens.

"We are just beginning to break through to find and help families that need this help the most," Swartz said.

While the program is still brand new, one place in town says they're looking forward to the help.

Pam Bartholomew of the Theresa House shelter in Mankato said they typically serve between 15 and 18 people at the shelter. They'd do more if fire codes would allow it, and she's sure they have demand.

She's heard word from other shelters and agencies around town that demand is higher, more people are hungry and more help is needed.

"(Campus Kitchens) will help our guests out," Bartholomew said. "It'll be nice for a mom with a lot of kids to have a nice nutritious meal when she gets home she didn't have to do it."

Eventually, MSU hopes to partner with community grocery stores and restaurants that can contribute either food for the cause or money to help continue the program.

They'll also need to get busy forming long-term partnerships — when the grant runs out, Campus Kitchens' financial connection to MSU is over, although they'll continue to partner with them on special projects and other things.

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