A Story of Superstar Volunteers
By Anna Walther
Although it’s hard to find many things people agree on these days, there are two things I feel most people hold to be objectively true: 1) food insecurity sucks and 2) food waste sucks.
I learned number one to be true from personal experience. My sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was marked by skipped meals and frequent trips to The Open Seat campus food pantry. My mom wasn’t working that year, and I didn’t have a safety net after all my job earnings disappeared with rent.
I was hardly unique for being a food insecure student. The national “Hunger on Campus” study found that roughly one in five students at four-year colleges are food insecure — with rates even higher for first-generation students and students of color. Federal programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — otherwise known as FoodShare in Wisconsin — have strict eligibility requirements for students pursuing a four-year degree. You must either work over twenty hours a week on top of being a full-time student, or you must receive work-study.
As for food waste, anyone who has attended a Food Recovery Network/Campus Kitchensmeal can attest to the large quantities of food thrown away by our dining halls every day. Hundreds of pounds of food are thrown away, while thousands of students stay hungry. As a hungry sophomore, I frequented their free weekly meals of recovered dining hall food, and got to know the volunteers more through my student ministry, The Crossing.
The Crossing is an inclusive campus ministry that strives in bringing together all people in a community of openness through progressive Christian practices. After they identified food insecurity as a pervasive issue, the Student Leadership Team President, Andi Nelson, coordinated the first Tuesday meals with a hodgepodge of wonderful student and community volunteers. The first meals attracted over 100 students, and combatted two concerns, food insecurity and food waste, in one big way.
However, in its first form, it was logistically difficult. Nelson spent hours every week trying to recruit and maintain volunteers, and they couldn’t always guarantee a sufficient amount of food or labor.
In the beginning of my junior year, I was in the unique position of being both on the Student Leadership Team at the Crossing and an Executive Board member of the Badger Volunteers program. In the fall of 2018, the Tuesday meals were still attracting huge crowds of students and volunteer recruitment was still eating up hours of time. Nelson was telling me about her logistical nightmares one Sunday, when we came up with a crazy idea: what if we could get Badger Volunteers to run the weekly lunches?
The Badger Volunteers program sends out students to volunteer with a community partner once per week for an entire semester. They provide transportation, orientation, trainings, and further education opportunities for students who want to engage meaningfully with their communities. I pitched the idea to Reuben Sanon, the Badger Volunteers Coordinator, and Nelson and I drafted up a proposal. A few months later, we were set to receive five fantastic student volunteers committed to volunteer each week.
Second semester rolled around and the Badger Volunteers hit the ground running. They were like a well-oiled machine: setting out dishes, scheduling when things went in the oven, and creating meal ideas based on the (sometimes whacky) ingredients handed to us by the dining hall. Although I was their team leader on paper, I didn’t always feel competent. I triedto answer questions I had the answers to. The team members were the main reason that every student could sit down with full plates. Reusable plates, I might add.
After using paper plates for the first few weeks, we realized it was hypocritical to be filling huge trash cans with paper plates in our efforts to reduce waste. If the Badger Volunteers were irritated by spending more time in the dish room washing 70 new plates, they never showed it.
The meals continued to improve. That year, the Food Recovery Network was one of four student organizations chosen to partner with the Morgridge Center for Public Service. In their new initiative to support service-minded registered student organizations, partnering organizations would attend a workshop on responsible civic engagement and receive funds to expand their reach or start new projects. The Food Recovery Network was able to use their funds to purchase transportation to bring meals to a Madison community center, and pay for union cabs to pick up food from even more dining halls.
Starting on the third or fourth week of school, I dashed after class up Bascom Hill over to Liz Waters Residence Hall to add even more dining hall options to our existing stock from the DeJope Residence Hall. Adding food from Liz Waters meant we had more savory vegetarian options, and enough food for students to not just eat at The Crossing, but take food home with them.
I am overjoyed that we had such a successful semester, but we are continuing to expand the program. Starting this fall, we are keeping frozen recovered meals from Gordon Dining Hall in the basement of The Crossing. Food insecurity doesn’t leave for the weekend, so we will package food on Thursdays and deliver them on Fridays. This way, students can feel free to come and pick up food as they please. As we grow, we may even look into another Badger Volunteers team.
Phew! Did we really do all that in only a year? I am beyond lucky to be working with folks who feel so passionate about promoting sustainability and food security in every aspect of their lives. With a little elbow grease, creativity, and a commitment to fighting waste to fight hunger, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish. There are incredible civic-minded people who will go to lengths you wouldn’t believe to make other people’s lives better. People who will burn their hands on meat sauce coming out of the oven and put their lives on hold so that they can volunteer. People who will put off studying to carry tables and chairs upstairs so that other people can eat. People who you run into a lot more than you think.