In the time between the mighty meals of Thanksgiving dinner and the upcoming holiday feasts, it’s hard to keep our minds off food. For the members of UNC Asheville’s Food Equity Initiative, food is always on the mind—namely, how to get food to those who need is most.
The Food Equity Initiative (FEI) launched in January of 2018 with a grant from the Walnut Cove Members Association, with the goal of providing access to healthy, delicious food to the campus community.
“The national research says that about 48 percent of college students meet the criteria for food insecurity, and 24 percent of college students meet the criteria for severe food insecurity,” said Jordan Perry, UNC Asheville’s Healthy Campus Liaison. In Buncombe County, 14 percent of the population is food insecure, Perry said. It adds up to a need that often goes unseen on college campuses.
The FEI has taken on the challenge of eliminating campus hunger with several new programs, starting with the launch of regular food distributions in the Sherrill Center Teaching Kitchen.
“Places like Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, they donate things that have been damaged or open or are near their best-by date but not there yet, and they donate them to the YMCA,” Perry explained. Because the YMCA has strict requirements for what they can accept, they pass along what they cannot take to the FEI.
“So, we see this as having two benefits,” Perry said. “We are redistributing food on campus, and we’re reducing food waste. This is food that otherwise would have been thrown away.”
The monthly food distributions also include fresh produce grown on campus gardens, such as buckets of kale or even bags of shitake mushrooms. The distributions are completely free and open to all on campus, and they’ve been a big hit.
“The food distributions go very quickly,” said Soni Pitts, a health and wellness promotion major and the project manager for the FEI. “We have people lining up while we’re still setting up stuff, and then that food is gone.”
“The reaction overall has been great,” Perry said. “Soni just heard from a student recently who said that they would have gone hungry if not for the distributions, and I heard from an employee here who said at the end of the month, it can be really tight for their budget because we only get paid once a month.” The food distributions helped ease that budget tension, Perry said.
Also hosted in the Teaching Kitchen are monthly community meals, delicious dinners which are cooked by the FEI members and are free and open to everyone on campus, with space for about 25 people every month.
There’s also a free monthly workshop, on topics like “Immune Boosters: Food, teas and tonics to boost your immune system.”
Outside of the Teaching Kitchen, the campus community can find 22 “community bowls” placed around campus, which are filled weekly with healthy snacks.
“The goal with the bowls is to create visible spaces on campus where people, if they have a little extra, they can drop it off, and people who need a little extra can pick it up,” Perry said. The departments where the bowls are placed regularly contribute food items to the bowls, as well. “The goal is to meet the community where they are.”
As the FEI looks forward to its second year, Pitts and Perry are hoping to expand their outreach and advocacy, and develop their partnerships with the Student Environmental Committee, the Office of Sustainability, Chartwells, and Living Learning Communities on campus.
“We’ve done a lot in a short amount of time, and I’m excited to see where we are in a year from now, five years from now,” Perry said. “I tell the folks who work on this project often, I want this to be something that you can come back and visit campus and say, look where this is. I helped start that. I want them to feel proud of what they built, and I want them to know that it’s going to sustain.”
“One person helped is an entire lifetime rippling forward, and everything that touches their life,” Pitts said. “Even if I only ever fed one person, that’s a big deal.”
For more information on the FEI, visit foodequity.unca.edu.