Student volunteer project repurposes food, feeds thousands year-round

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Wake Forest student volunteers with Campus Kitchen work to prepare meals for Turkeypalooza on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013 in Winston-Salem. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C — Jessica Shortall and Karen Borchert hit a home run for hunger. Inspired by a shared love of cooking and desire to give back, the two women started a program to feed the hungry, called Homerun, almost 15 years ago, during their junior year at Wake Forest University.

“I’ve always believed food brings people together and crosses bridges and divides when they can share meals together,” Shortall, 35, said.

The two went on to start a national food recycling and redistribution program, The Campus Kitchens Project, in 2001. The group now has locations at 34 schools nationwide and has saved more than 3 million pounds of food and prepared more than 2 million meals served to the hungry.

A place of “yes”

Shortall and Borchert studied abroad in Venice during the fall of their junior year in 1998, and they began cooking meals together every night for the students and faculty in the house they shared. When the program ended and they returned to campus, Borchert said, they wanted to continue cooking.

So, they began to cold-call local churches and offer to cook and deliver food to members on prayer lists. Before they knew it, friends were asking to volunteer and they were preparing more meals each week. Borchert, 35, said what began as a hobby quickly turned into a campus-wide volunteer effort. “It turned into an organization sort of by accident,” she said.

Shortall said Wake Forest helped Homerun become a thriving volunteer group. Wake Forest was always a ‘yes’ place, with doors opening rather than shutting.

By the time Shortall and Borchert graduated in 2000, the completely student-run organization was delivering hundreds of meals to a variety of local nonprofits every month, Borchert said.

The Campus Kitchens Project

After graduating, Shortall joined the Peace Corps, while Borchert relocated to Washington, D.C. and began working for a nonprofit called D.C. Central Kitchen. The organization had many parallels to Homerun, with the added concept of food recycling — turning never used, surplus food from restaurants and food service groups into healthy meals for those in need.

Borchert said with the partnership of D.C. Central Kitchen and funding from a grant, they were able to apply the concept to college campuses around the country, beginning with St. Louis University in Missouri in 2001.

Around the same time, Shortall’s time with the Peace Corps was cut short when the group was sent home after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She began helping open Campus Kitchens at other schools, while always staying in touch with Homerun at Wake Forest. “We always thought ‘Let’s build something we can replicate,’” she said.

Finally, in 2006, through a grant partnership with Aramark Corporation, a Campus Kitchen was founded at Wake Forest University, bringing the women’s efforts full circle.

Wake’s kitchen today

With 30 students on a core leadership team, and an average of 75 student volunteers a week, Wake Forest’s Campus Kitchen is a force combating hunger year-round in Winston-Salem. The group has two central programs, explained Shelley Sizemore, 29, assistant director of campus life and service at Wake Forest.

In the first program, the students pick up leftover prepared foods from the cafeteria every day to repurpose into an average of 300 meals a week to be delivered to five main local organizations: The Children’s Home, Azalea Terrace Senior Apartments, SECU Family House, Prodigals Community and AIDS Care Service. Sizemore said they also deliver to Samaritan Ministries on a rolling basis.

“The turnaround is fast; they cook all meals the day before. If we deliver on Tuesday we have a cooking shift on Monday night for that,” Sizemore said. “We’ve gotten it to where we have no food waste.”

In addition to delivering prepared meals, the group also delivers produce and other surplus food to local nonprofits, including, El Buen Pastor Latino Community Services, The Shalom Project and The Potter’s House, through a partnership with The Fresh Market.

Thanks to the dedication of students, Wake’s Campus Kitchen has served at least 60,000 meals and redistributed more than 320,000 pounds of food since it was founded.

From January through October this year alone, the students contributed more than 4,000 volunteer hours, served almost 7,000 meals and rescued more than 76,000 pounds of food. “I think what has been really impressive to me is the amount of time these students want to dedicate to making the world around them a better place,” Sizemore said.

And the students don’t stop. The kitchen runs year-round. Recently the group completed its annual Turkeypalooza event, where students, faculty and staff cook and deliver 400 Thanksgiving meals to Winston-Salem’s hungry.

In the summer, volunteer numbers go down, but the school hires two or three interns to run the kitchen and also relies on faculty, staff and community volunteers to keep the group running like clockwork. “One of the most important things is that they are doing it year-round,” Shortall said.

“People are hungry every single day of the year.”

Bursting the bubble

But it’s not just the community that benefits from Campus Kitchen’s efforts, Sizemore said the students gain valuable leadership opportunities and build relationships outside of campus. “It’s teaching this lesson of community, that it’s important to be an active participant in the community you’re a part of, and that continues to resonate with students when they graduate,” she said.

Mattos Paschal, a senior at Wake Forest and a member of Campus Kitchen’s executive leadership board, said she feels like the group has a great impact. “You have an intimate connection to those who are struggling and you see the changes when you help alleviate a pressure,” she said. “I don’t have to sit back; I can have a very active role in fighting hunger.”

“It is a bubble on campus and we are really wrapped up in projects and papers, but Winston-Salem as a community gives us so much and I think it’s really natural for us to give back and help,” Paschal added.

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