Student group fights hunger, the status quo

by Richard Lazarus | 11/25/03 6:00am

A Dartmouth student-run gleaning program that prepared 1350 meals for local needy families is trying to change the way local non-profits and Dartmouth volunteer programs fight hunger in the Upper Valley.

The program began with a seemingly simple concept: take the food that farmers don't harvest for commercial purposes, gather it with student volunteers, cook it into nutritious meals and donate it to local food shelves where it would be available for local families.

In the Upper Valley and other rural areas, hunger usually is not an issue of whether people get enough calories in their diet, but whether that diet is nutritious and healthy. The cheapest diets in America tend to have too much starches and not enough vegetables.

Local food shelves -- essentially small grocery stores -- tend to have a lot of grains and starches, but very little fresh produce, fruit and dairy. They work on a system where families can take as much bread as they want whenever they want and can shop for a week's worth of groceries once a month.

Local farms, on the other hand, always have excess crops that they do not harvest. This could be because they have over-planted and there is no market for the crops, because the crops are not aesthetic enough for commercial purposes or for some other reason.

Becca Heller '05 introduced the program to her professor in Environmental Systems 39 -- "Natural Resources, Development and the Environment" --as a "service-learning" project in which students could learn hands-on about the problems of food security while doing something to combat the problems.

Her professor, Jack Shepherd, agreed to let 13 student volunteers do the extensive research needed to plan the program instead of taking a final exam. The students presented their report to an audience that included representatives from local non-profits and N.H. Secretary of Agriculture Steve Taylor.

Students involved told The Dartmouth at the time they were surprised by the enthusiasm with which their efforts were received by both farmers and local non-profits with an interest in food security. They also found that many farmers were already donating some of their excess produce to food shelves on their own.

The students generated a plan to get crops and cook them in commercial kitchens local organizations lent to student and local volunteers for that purpose. By preparing whole, frozen and nutritious meals, the group wanted to make it easy for needy families to get and use the meals the program would prepare.

After the presentation, Heller, now a co-chair of Students Fighting Hunger, continued to spearhead efforts to implement the program. Throughout her efforts, she paid particular attention to the question of sustainability.

Sylvia Davatz, who owns a local catering business, A Fork in the Road, volunteered to help lead some of the cooking sessions.

Along with the enthusiasm of students, "another thing that I'm really impressed with ... is that Becca has been concerned all along with the continuity of it; that it be driven not just by one personality but extend beyond her career at Dartmouth," she said.

Claudia Kern, who coordinates volunteers for a local Unitarian church, pointed out that leveraging local groups would allow for the creation of a steering committee that "students could plug in to."

All in all, Dartmouth student volunteers made six trips to five different farms and the program prepared over 1600 pounds of food.

The program is distinct in many ways. It is one of the only programs in the Upper Valley in which students volunteers and groups interact with local volunteers and non-profits.

Local volunteers like senior centers help to prepare the food for cooking and local and student volunteers work together to prepare the food in to frozen meals that food shelves can sell ready-to-eat.

Heller sees the next step as a community kitchen, a space that where food could be brought, stored and prepared and where groups could physically come together to implement their programs.

The kitchen may be run in the short term by a representative from Campus Kitchens, a national non-profit that works with college campuses on similar projects, and in the long term by a board of students and representatives from local non-profits, which would guarantee the gleaning program and other efforts would continue beyond the current four-year generation of students.

At the moment, local non-profits' efforts to fight Upper Valley hunger are not as sustainable as they should be, Heller said.

"The only way [local non-profits] are fighting hunger now is food shelves and community dinners. That's food that's bought and then donated" or donated by large corporations, Heller said. "If you do that you're going to be giving people food for a long time. That's not a good way to sustainably address the causes of hunger."

Becca Wehrly '06, who is took charge of outreach and education for the program, described other efforts to solve the problem of hunger in the Upper Valley in a sustainable way, including an after-school program

Wehrly is also trying to organize free cooking lessons for families and, assisted by Davatz, is creating a cookbook that buyers at food shelves can use to learn how to prepare vegetables from local farms like kale and Swiss chard.

"It was exciting because it was completely new and we had total support to come up with new projects. And because it was new we could focus on things that were really needed," Wehrly said of the project. "Because we had a lot of freedom in creating the project we could be creative in meeting those needs."

During the fall, the gleaning program used the kitchen at the Roth center to prepare food and Students Fighting Hunger used the Aquinas House to host weekly community dinners.

With its large commercial kitchens capable of preparing hundreds of meals at a time, the Dartmouth Dining Services would be a natural choice for the gleaning program to prepare its meals.

In the past, DDS Director Tucker Rossiter indicated to The Dartmouth that he would be open to such a program if it was approved by the Department of Risk Management. But a major issue remains: liability.

If a student or community volunteer is injured at a DDS facility, there's a risk they could sue the College, which generally makes Dartmouth wary.

However, Department of Risk Management Director Henry James told The Dartmouth he could approve the program in less than a week if he were satisfied by ongoing conversations with Heller and Campus Kitchens.

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