Campus Kitchen Fights Senior Hunger and Food Waste in Athens

While one in seven seniors go hungry in the United States, according to a Meals on Wheels report, nearly half the food produced in America is wasted, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council study.

The irony of this isn’t lost on an Athens nonprofit, Campus Kitchen, aiming to solve both– and it now has the recognition of its national namesake.

So far, the organization has targeted a population in need within the community, affiliated with the national Campus Kitchen organization and seen tangible results from its efforts.

“Campus Kitchen has grown a lot and our expansion is really an ongoing process,” Nathalie Celestin, an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Campus Kitchen, said.

Campus Kitchen began at the University of Georgia in the spring of 2011 as a campus organization, but faculty sponsor Cecelia Herles connected the club to her classroom as an initial means of institutional support.

“From the beginning we have been a hybrid of a service-learning course effort and a student organization,” Sarah Jackson, an intern with the Office of Service Learning at the University and volunteer since 2010, said. “It has worked out for the best. Having a student organization and Leadership Team provides the structure and consistency we need to run this level of efforts, but they really wouldn’t be plausible without the support of students from different courses.”

Students completed community assessments in one of Herles’ class to determine the need a feasibility of an Athens Campus Kitchen.

“Campus Kitchen at UGA focuses on seniors in Athens because the rate of food insecurity for seniors is much higher than for other groups,” Talie Watzman, a junior social work major at the University, said. “We wanted to address that food insecurity directly in our operations.”

One of five Athens-Clarke County residents is food insecure, many of whom are elderly.

 “We found that because the senior population is often hidden from society, people tend to forget about them,” Celestin said. “If you think about it, there are so many programs and aid out there geared towards children and young adults because that’s who we see all the time and that’s great but what about the senior population?”

Volunteers pick up food from places it would be otherwise wasted– restaurants, community gardens and Greek housing– and then repurposing the food into meals at a central cooking space. Shifts then take these meals to seniors facing food insecurity.

“The Athens Community Council on Aging already had several programs in place that were targeted at seniors, Grandparents Raising Children and Meals on Wheels are the two we work with, so it was easy for us to get connected with the senior community that way,” Watzman said.

Campus Kitchen benefactors are funneled through these programs, meaning the group can focus primarily on project follow-through and organizational growth.

One major area of growth is the Athens Campus Kitchen’s recent affiliation with the national Campus Kitchen.

“Being affiliated with the national Campus Kitchen was a huge deal for us. It was something that Sarah Jackson and other members of the leadership team had been working for for the better part of 2 years,” said Watzman. “The national organization makes us ‘official’ in a way that we weren’t before.”

And despite a history of service and community connection, that affiliation did not come easily.

“It required a lot of time and a lot of paperwork. We had to submit records of our operations, stuff like the amount of meals we served each month and how many pounds of food we collect weekly,” said Watzman. “A representative of the national organization visited Athens for a few days to check us out.”

Once a school is offered affiliation, the group must pay a $1,200 annual affiliation fee, which covers everything ranging from program support (access to national program managers, on-site training, program materials) to financial resources (in-house grant opportunities and internships) to marketing support (use of national brand and logo, website services, publicity support). In total, Campus Kitchens estimates the value of an affiliation with them to exceed $8,000.

Campus Kitchen volunteers say the training and national management support has been invaluable, and funding opportunities have played out this month. Between April 5th and April 12th, Campus Kitchens across the country are competing against each other to crowdsource the most money in the “Raise the Dough Challenge,” an effort supported by national branding and online funding platforms. The national Campus Kitchen will also give the school that raises the most money $1,000 and the school with the most donors will receive $750 towards their efforts.

Support for Campus Kitchen groups is expensive partially because the projects are so intense, but also because each group is distinct and poses different challenges and needs. The Campus Kitchen at the University of Georgia is no different.

We’re the only Campus Kitchen that focuses on senior hunger,” Watzman said.

Georgia is eighth in the nation for hunger among older adults, and collectively the 166 Campus Kitchen volunteers have put in 680.2 hours of work this semester, according to their own calculations. Many keep coming back because they see tangible effects from their work.

“We were able to remove 32 clients from our waiting list and provide them with two prepared meals, produce from the UGArden and commodity goods to last them the month,” Celestin said. “Thirty-two might not seem like a huge number, but it was a big accomplishment for us and we hope to keep that going.”

Even before those seniors were added to the meal list, in 2012 that totaled 5,745 meals that Campus Kitchen prepared and delivered to community members in need, a result of collecting 27,623 pounds of surplus food, again, according to their own calculations. Those involved also benefit from the work, which Watzman calls “the most rewarding volunteer experience” she’s ever had.

“So many student groups on campus are focused primarily on fundraising and while that is incredibly important, I really wanted to do hands on work with members of the Athens community,” Watzman said.

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