I completed a cooking shift on April 28th with Campus Kitchen at Elon University. Campus Kitchen “collects unused and unserved food from community partners, including ARAMARK Dining Services, while engaging students, faculty and staff as volunteers who prepare and deliver the meals to those in need in the Burlington community” (The Campus Kitchen at Elon University 2015). That evening, we prepared food for the next morning’s deliveries. I helped prepare a colorful salad and ratatouille pasta. We put together a few metal tins for the Allied Churches of Alamance County which provides emergency services for the people in the community in need including meals, shelter, and support. According to the Cooking Shift Coordinator, their services target those facing homelessness, hunger, abuse, mental illness, and lack of education and job training. We prepared food to feed about 200 people.
We also packaged 54 to-go containers with pasta and salad. 24 were for Graham Recreation Center Senior Program and 30 for the John Robert Kernodle Senior Activities Center in Burlington. Local senior citizens come to these programs for food, fellowship, church services, and presentations. Every senior citizen receives a hot meal there then can take the packaged meal that we prepared home. Marissa, a Cooking Shift Coordinator, sometimes delivers these packaged meals to the Kernodle Center. In our interview about her experiences, she said that by the time they arrive with the meals, the senior citizens are sitting at tables talking to each other and playing cards. Sometimes, the volunteers give presentations to the senior citizens about staying healthy with information about exercise, sugar intake, the food pyramid, etc. Marissa says they seem to enjoy these presentations because they always ask a lot of questions and are very chatty with the volunteers and with each other.
The Campus Kitchen volunteers completed all of the food preparation during the cooking shift. While making good conversation, we cut the vegetables, cooked the pasta, packaged everything and deep cleaned all of the surfaces and dishes. I personally cut up lettuce and potatoes and taught the rest of the volunteers how to properly cut up fresh garlic. I also helped mix up the salad and pasta and pack them in the to-go packages. After that, I helped wash all of the knives and cutting boards. The kitchen area, which is located in Varsity Sports Grill, is run by mainly Varsity employees while we had a corner section to prepare the Campus Kitchen food. The Varsity manager was very concerned about Campus Kitchen’s cleanliness and cross-contamination.
While all of the Campus Kitchen volunteers were mainly white female Elon students, the workers at Varsity were all black except for one female manager. This could emphasize the differences between the “Elon bubble” and the rest of the Elon and Burlington community. Elon provides many jobs for the community, but there seems to be a divide between the Elon students and Elon workers.
According to both Dettwyler and Chavez et al., many times, poverty and malnutrition go hand in hand. Dettwyler explains that socioeconomic status is an important factor influencing nutritional status. Many times, as people grow older, their retirement fund gets smaller and smaller. Without the constant help of their adult children, some are forced to go to these senior programs for food and company. I have seen this circumstance first-hand with my family friends and their grandparents. If Campus Kitchen has to feed so many people in this situation, are the senior citizens getting the nutrition needed to stay strong and healthy? Providing a balanced diet is sometimes expensive, after all.
Before this field experience, I wanted to know how nutrition plays a part in feeding people with food insecurity. I wondered if these meals included a lot of lean, healthy ingredients or cheap and unhealthy ones. I was expecting that in order to feed so many people in need every week, Campus Kitchen would have to utilize only cheap and donated ingredients. Even though Campus Kitchen did rely on donations and wholesale foods, the ingredients were all very nutritious. We spent most of our time cutting up potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers to add to the pasta and salad. We also used whole grain pasta, which is a bit healthier than regular pasta. Even though Campus Kitchen did not prepare any meat this week, sometimes it cooks chicken and rice or chicken and pasta for Allied Churches and the senior programs. Campus Kitchen tries to always balance the food groups and add a colorful side salad.
Campus Kitchen receives many of its vegetables from Loy Farm, right on Elon’s campus. In fact, the lettuce I cut up came directly from Loy Farm that morning. Campus Kitchen also gets a lot of its food from small, local farms in Raleigh. Other than that, it buys food in bulk—like the tomatoes for the pasta ratatouille—from BJ’s.
I never knew Campus Kitchen helped feed senior citizens in the area. I figured that all of the food would go toward feeding the homeless in the community. Senior citizens are often forgotten about in a community. I spend a few hours a semester with Sigma Kappa at Blakey Hall Retirement Community and interact with the Alzheimer’s residents. We stimulate their minds by engaging in conversation, doing arts and crafts, and karaoke. Sigma Kappa is the first collegiate organization to focus their philanthropy efforts to gerontology and Alzheimer’s research. The Alzheimer’s Association, Blakey Hall, and Twin Lakes—the other retirement community at which we volunteer—is always so thankful of our focus on the sometimes forgotten older generation. The same appreciation occurs when volunteers of Campus Kitchen interact with the people at the senior programs. Marissa noted that giving these deserving senior citizens food and speaking with them is the highlight of their day. The senior citizens look forward to the days they can go to these programs and only wish they could go more than once a week.
Through this experience, I learned that food insecurity is not limited to a specific group. When I thought of food insecurity before, I imagined packed soup kitchens with a line around the block full of homeless neighbors that haven’t showered in a while. As awful and narrow-minded as that may sound, I blame my past ignorance to my middle-class upbringing. I grew up in a small neighborhood with three-bedroom homes and minivans in the driveways. I didn’t live in a lavish neighborhood, but I also was not exposed to extreme poverty. I had a single, narrow-minded idea about what food insecurity looked like and I could not have been more wrong. Food insecurity happens to families with two incomes, it happens to senior citizens running out of their retirement fund, and it happens to families with a roof over their heads. The main lesson I learned from this field experience is that there is not one picture perfect representation of food insecurity.
The Campus Kitchen at Elon University. The John R. Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement. 2015.