Students donate time to provide meals, advocacy
Published November 17, 2003; Category: STUDENTS
A Dartmouth student organization is taking on problems of hunger in the Upper Valley, providing what is needed most: free meals, fresh vegetables and information.
Students Fighting Hunger (SFH) once focused primarily on preparing weekly community dinners and organizing food drives. But a diversified SFH has added an outreach and a "gleaning" program in hopes of better attending to hunger issues in the Upper Valley.
Every Friday, SFH, in conjunction with another student organization, holds a community dinner that serves about 15-20 people each night. Students cook and serve the meal, and afterward, chat with the dinner guests during dinner.
"Sometimes it's easy to think of it just as a social thing, but then you realize that it's their main meal, and it's really making a difference in their day," said Laura Rosow '04, the chairperson for community dinners.
But due to the vagaries of student life, it has been difficult for SFH to keep the dinners going year-round. Typically, the dinners are discontinued at the end of each term until the beginning of the next term. This can leave the people who have come to rely on the dinners without a meal on Friday nights. Rosow said that SFH is looking for a community organization to take over the dinners during the interim break between fall and winter terms.
Given that students bear almost all responsibility for setting up the dinners, volunteers are in short supply during heavy academic work periods, Rosow said. SFH is occasionally forced to enlist its members, some of whom are involved in other SFH initiatives, to coordinate the dinners during exam weeks.
This fall, SFH initiated a gleaning program, in which students visit local farms to gather the produce that was missed during the harvest. SFH then takes the produce to the kitchen in the Roth Center for Jewish Life, where they prepare individual meals that are ultimately distributed to local food shelves that provide free food to needy families - all from produce that would have otherwise rotted back into the ground.
The program generated 1,127 frozen meals in three weeks. Yet the quantity of meals obscures how important the quality of the meal is to families that may not eat a well-balanced diet. Each meal contains fruits and vegetables, essential items that many of the Upper Valley's neediest families lack.
"In the Upper Valley, it's not that people aren't getting enough food, it's that they aren't eating the right food," said Becca Wehrly '06, the coordinator of SFH's advocacy program.
People who are struggling to put food on the table are eating carbohydrate-heavy diets, and not enough fruits and vegetables, often because nutritious meals are too expensive or too complicated to make. Those who straddle the poverty line may hold to strict financial and time budgets that prevent them from eating nutritious meals.
Wehrly said that some families cook simpler, less nutritious meals because fruits and vegetables can be harder to prepare. With help from a local caterer, SFH members plan to write a free community cookbook that will include healthy recipes and descriptions of unfamiliar ingredients. Such a cookbook could also make healthy eating more appealing to kids, said Becca Heller '05, the chair of the gleaning program.
"With carrots, a really easy thing you could do is put brown sugar on them and bake them. And I don't know any kid who doesn't like carrots with brown sugar," Heller said.
Community members have been instrumental in making the gleaning program a success. Farmers in particular have been quite generous, despite the risks involved with students "stomping around their income," Heller said. Some farmers insist that the students take more than what they collect from the fields.
"We'll go to a farm to get squash, and the farmer will say, 'Oh, you can't make a good soup without celery root,' and then donate celery root," Heller said.
Tracy Dustin-Eichler, Volunteer Program Advisor at the Tucker Foundation, has seen the gleaning project grow from an idea into a reality despite the hurdles the student members have had to overcome. Some members have donated more than 10 hours a week to SFH, in addition to classes, extracurricular activities, and a social life.
"The commitment (the members of SFH) have to issues in the Upper Valley and New Hampshire is inspiring," Dustin-Eichler said. "They give me hope."
Now that the harvest season has come and gone, SFH is reorienting itself around food drives and advocacy work.
In the next few weeks, SFH also plans to run two food drives. Unlike past food drives, these initiatives will specify which foods can be donated. Most food drives end up collecting food, like canned olives for example, that often are as useless to the recipients as they were to the students, Heller said.
In addition to direct service, advocacy and outreach has become a priority for SFH. Its main objective is to get eligible people signed up for programs that are intended to help them. About 46 percent of all New Hampshire residents eligible for food assistance programs have not filled out the relatively simple paperwork necessary to receive benefits. Wehrly said that SFH will begin an outreach program aimed at increasing the food assistance rolls later this term.
A greater challenge for SFH is political. A few bills dealing with hunger issues have been circulating in the New Hampshire legislature, but they have remained inactive, without garnering much public notice. To call more attention to the bills, SFH is gathering a state-wide coalition of college students, some of which first met in early November.
Heller said that the coalition will reassemble for an activist training day in February. State representatives and senators will be among the speakers. (Contact Tracy Dustin-Eichler at 646-0411 for more information.)
Wehrly said she has high hopes for the advocacy program, which could result in more people eating better diets without the direct intervention of SFH. "Since the gleaning project is seasonal, we have an opportunity to channel the energy of the volunteers into another program that's going to fight the same fight, just at another level," she said.
By MATT LEWIS '05
Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.
Last Updated: 12/17/08