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W&L's Campus Kitchen Feeds Minds and Bellys

photo by Beverly Amsler

A hunger relief program at Washington & Lee University has garnered the attention of Governor McDonnell for contributing to the life and welfare of low-income rural residents in Rockbridge County.  Volunteers at the Campus Kitchen Project put the saying “Waste not, want not” to good use.

It’s not your typical, run of the mill soup kitchen.  Instead of the homeless coming to them, the Campus Kitchen Project at Washington & Lee University travels throughout Rockbridge County. Volunteers take about 2,000 home cooked meals to those in the community including homebound seniors and the Magnolia Center, a day support program for adults with intellectual disabilities.

On a late spring morning, three interns and a recent graduate carry large, insulated food bags from a van into the Magnolia Center and are immediately greeted with clapping and cheers.  Lunch has arrived.  The volunteers don hairnets and plastic gloves, then get to work opening the bags, pulling out aluminum-wrapped metal containers, and filling styrofoam plates with food.  Jenny Davidson is the Campus Kitchen Coordinator.

“Today they’re having a Mexican-style casserole.  It’ll be rice with black beans, corn, chicken, all sorts of tasty things together.”  “The food has been recovered, mostly from the local Walmart.” 

And that’s what makes the Campus Kitchen Project different from other food kitchens.

“We are taking food that is underutilized; food that the dining services have prepared or perhaps Walmart is having to pull things that are close-dated-food that used to go in the trash.”

The meals are then “repurposed” and served to those in the community.

The Campus Kitchen is a student-run hunger relief program and part of the Campus Kitchens Project, a national network of 33 schools, based in the nation’s capitol.  A student who worked in the Washington, D. C. campus kitchen brought the model to W&L in 2006. 

The school’s kitchen is run by student leadership team during the school year and includes about 400 volunteers, including members of the community.  The interns spent three hours making the meal the night before—the food gets reheated before serving.  Davidson says they try to hit all the basic food groups. 

“That’s the goal.  We try to have a protein, starch, vegetable, and some sort of dessert, and we try to do fruit whenever possible.”

The Campus Kitchen Project at W&L was one of nine winners of this year’s Governor’s Volunteerism and Community Service Awards.

“It’s a huge honor and I think it speaks to the dedication of our students to this work.  In the six years that the kitchen has been around, going on seven, we’ve grown quite a bit and have been able to be a real leader among the network and I think the work the students are doing in our community, it deserves this sort of award.  So, I’m really proud of them.”

She says W&L’s program is unique among the campus kitchens in the network. 

“A lot of kitchens are working more with homeless shelters and that sort of thing.  And when you’re in a rural population, it’s not that the needs aren’t there, but it’s a little bit harder to find the partnerships to develop and reach that need.  And so we’ve had to be creative in that, just coming from a smaller community.”

Education is another key component..  There’s a nutrition class offered for after school programs and summer camps, and a backpack program serves 500 children throughout the school year and 100 children over the summer.  And in an area of the campus known for growing biology experiments, W&L even has its own garden to raise crops for the project.  Families are being encouraged to try their hand at gardening.

“We have peas and strawberries that we’ve already got it.  We got beets this year already.  We have sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn, everything you can imagine growing out there.”

After lunch has been distributed, the volunteers each fill a plate and sit among the 25 or so clients, something Day Support Program Manager Kathy Marlatt says is just as important as having a nutritious meal.

“We have had many volunteers come from Washington & Lee’s Campus Kitchen who have kept in touch with individuals even after they’ve graduated college and kept on.  So it’s really the friendship, the interactions, and the volunteers that are really important as well as the food.  They really look forward to them coming because they’ve made such good bonds with people.”

Volunteer Isaac Webb, who graduated in May, hopes to keep in touch.

“It started off through a service-based learning class and then I developed a pretty strong relationship with the people at the Magnolia Center and wanted to keep going with that.  I like the service aspect of it a lot but really it’s about the people.  I like the clients here, I like the employees.  It’s just a great time every time I come.” 

And the clients and staff at the Magnolia Center are glad they came, too.