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.
Students cradling notebooks file into their GED class, greeting one another in Spanish and filling in the side-arm desks from the back.
“I need it for deferred action,” said one student, a 26-year-old Mexican citizen but U.S. resident for the past twelve years. “I would feel free. With it, you don’t have to be scared anymore.”
Half a million people will get their GED in the United States this year, but education is not necessarily the sole focus of these certificates. For students like the 26-year-old woman, the road to a GED can also serve as a pathway around deportation– at least for now.
On June 15th 2012, President Obama signed an executive order allowing undocumented “childhood arrivals” to apply for “deferred action,” granting immunity from deportation for a two-year period as well as employment authorization. The Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES), an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of the Latino community in Athens, Ga., has run their GED prep program for over a year, but deferred action revitalized it. Executive director Jeff Zimmerman said registration rose after the announcement, and the center expanded its program in August.
“The deferred action is really big. Being able to legally participate in our economy is a really big deal,” Zimmerman said. “Our GED program, given that possibility, would have a really impact because it opens so many doors for people– brand new jobs they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, being able to be here without fear of being deported for two years.”
To be eligible for deferred action consideration by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, residents must have arrived in the United States prior to their sixteenth birthday, have continuously resided in the United States for the last five years, have a clean criminal record and either be an honorably discharged veteran, currently in school, have graduated from a high school or awarded a GED. This last provision is where ALCES steps in.
“Our [GED prep] course is pretty intensive, they try to get them through as quickly as possible while still capturing all the necessary content,” Zimmerman said. “We have some pretty focused students.”
The GED is a high school equivalency certificate, open to anyone at least sixteen years of age and not enrolled in a regular high school. The GED is contingent on the cumulative scores of five individual tests. Incentive exists to pass these tests the first time due to the burdens of cost (in the state of Georgia, fees total to $95) and time (low scores can result in a three or six month wait period before individuals can retake the GED tests). Reports from national and local news sources show rising demand for preparation courses from undocumented would-be test-takers, but students struggle to afford private options, barred from free, state-provided classes due to their legal status.
Not every student participating in the GED courses at ALCES does so with aims of deferred action.
“Some want to do it for education purposes or job opportunities,” Zimmerman said.
But he added that at least half, maybe more, are taking these classes in hopes of fulfilling the educational requirement of the policy.
But those who do, according to Jennifer Blalock, an ALCES volunteer who works the front desk, come from all corners of Georgia and even as far as South Carolina to sit in the classrooms at ALCES. She attributes this not only to the classes themselves, but to the role ALCES plays in the Latino community as well.
“We’re established from within the Latino community,” she said, pointing out the multitude of community services ALCES offers.
According to former ALCES executive director Jamie Umaña, 380 students are enrolled in GED classes at the center, a number only limited by classroom space. Blalock says demand is so high that ALCES keeps a waiting list. For the undocumented, the possibility of deferred action makes the GED process all worthwhile.
“I cannot imagine living as an undocumented immigrant. The fear that comes with that of using basic resources that you and I would take for granted every day is crazy,” Zimmerman said. “Being scared of going to the doctor…every traffic stop becomes a terrifying experience– if you’re undocumented you’re un-licenseable.”
Students at the classes agreed. The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant said her life would “change in many ways” if she received deferred action. For her, the most important thing to come with deferred action would be a license, which would enable mobility without fear and the opportunity for a better job.
Another undocumented woman, also from Mexico, agreed. “It’s hard to get a job when you can’t drive or apply with your real name,” she said. The 19-year-old has lived in the U.S. since she was four. Beyond the end, she enjoys the means, saying the classes are good and “getting to learn more about the subjects” is interesting.
Although none of the students knew people awarded deferred action, all still have hope. Hope for a future, according to students, they didn’t have prior to the executive order.
“I dropped out of high school because what’s the point when you can’t go to college or get a job,” said the 19-year-old, now attending GED prep courses but still far from prepared to take the actual test. In the meantime, Zimmerman said the courses build a resource without legal bounds: confidence.
“When people succeed, they get empowered and that can’t really be understated.”
ALCES offers GED classes specializing in language arts, writing, reading, social studies, science and math, either in two-hour increments Monday through Thursday or in a six hour Saturday class. Course duration ranges from three to six months, at $50 a month. The center registers new students every week. ALCES is also always in great need of volunteers to help operate all its many community programs.