February 25, 2014

MISSION MATTERS: The Strength of Our Mission

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Many of you have probably heard of the Campus Kitchen at SLU, but some may not know exactly what it is that we do.

Technically we are a "food re-purposing program." We go to grocery stores or dining halls and pick up food that won't be used or is expired (past its sell-by date, but still perfectly good — they just cannot sell it anymore), and we bring it back to the dining hall in Reinert. From there we use student volunteers to sort and process the food, and then turn it into meals for elderly, low-income and disabled clients. We then deliver the meals to the clients' homes, much like Meals-on-Wheels. We produce and deliver up to 400 meals each week using all recovered or donated food and a volunteer staff.

Recently, you may have heard about cuts to SNAP benefits, otherwise known as food stamps, which went into effect on Nov. 1, 2013. There are hungry people — or people who are doing most of their grocery shopping at places the Shell gas station on Grand — who are living within a short walk of campus. And, there is danger that this hunger and the number of these people will grow.

But while the fight against hunger is important, I sometimes sit and wonder about the other side of what the students are doing when they deliver a meal. Many of our clients are practically living on campus — we deliver to 80 people in Council Towers and Grand View Towers, the high rises just beyond Chipotle. There's no easy way to put this, but some of those clients are not living out the best years of their lives: many of them are homebound, with no family and little support. Others are isolated in their own bodies or minds, dealing with mental illness which compels them to isolate from others. Even in their younger and better days, I suspect that many (not all, but many) of our clients lacked the educational and social opportunities that the majority of our students have.

I sometimes imagine some of those clients looking from their apartments to the bustling campus below, watching the students, who are at the very apex of fun, youth and limitless potential. Not to idealize college life — I know some of our students struggle as well — but in general, who wouldn't want the life of a college student, so full of promise? I have come to believe that it is really significant for some of our clients to know that are cared for by these students in their midst, that they have a share in the rich campus life going on below.

How do I know this? Well, some of our clients who act the grumpiest, who hardly show any emotion when we deliver (in some cases, just a hand reached around the door to grab the meal and then take it in) are some of the first ones to call or express disappointment when we have to cancel because of a holiday or a University break. "When will the students be back?" they want to know.

Mother Teresa once said that she thought the loneliness in America and the rest of the developed world caused as much, if not more, suffering than the poverty found in developing nations. Through Campus Kitchen we try not just to fight hunger, but also to battle the plague of isolation.

I must mention the support that we get from the staff and faculty at this University. I work as the program manager for 10 other campus kitchens across the country, and SLU employees, as a whole, are by far the most supportive of a kitchen on their campus that I have ever encountered. I don't know if it is a result of the University Mission or other factors, but the support we get is remarkable.

It includes everything from the space donated by the University and the support of the Center for Service and Community Engagement, to the administration, to our "regulars" — departments such as Human Resources, Information Technology Services, Institutional Giving and Alumni Relations, who actually call us to come volunteer when they know we have an upcoming student break and will need extra hands in the kitchen. It includes departments such as Student Financial Services who, after grating pounds and pounds of potatoes for potato pancakes once on a volunteer shift, decided we needed a food processor and took up a collection to buy us one. It includes the random gallon of oil or 20-pound bag of rice that a staff member anonymously drops off after seeing we lack staple ingredients. It includes the guys from Facilities Services who heard a rumor that we were missing the turkeys we needed one Thanksgiving drive and showed up the next day with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of turkey. (They just kept coming — it felt like Christmas morning that day — I actually suspect they bought out the Aldi!)

It includes the professor from the chemistry department who regularly brings his whole family on Sunday mornings to pick up from Trader Joe's and sort the good food from the bad in our fridge, and the psychology professor who takes over summer deliveries when we lack volunteers with a car. It includes every department that faithfully collects for us at Thanksgiving, and it includes those who gave to our online fundraiser in the spring when just a couple of emails went out to select departments (thank you, Jim Greathouse, our guardian angel) and we were not only catapulted in a single day to meeting our fundraising goal, but also came quite close to winning the entire competition against 30 other campus kitchens across the country. It even includes the faculty member from the med center who got tired of seeing her teenage sons loafing around the house a couple of summers ago and sent them, against their will, to help us out almost every day. (I think they secretly really enjoyed it!)

I could never name all of my examples but it is extremely moving to me. Thank you for letting me be a part of your community.

— Jenny Bird, director of SLU Campus Kitchen

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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