The idea sounds like a no-brainer: Use leftover kitchen space at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to prepare meals for those in need throughout Western Mass. However, a number of logistical concerns on the part of Environmental Health and Safety and Dining Services are stalling the flagship UMass campus from becoming the second campus kitchen in Massachusetts and 29th in the United States.
“I think the [Campus Kitchen Project] is a good idea. I mean to support the community”, said UMass Amherst Director of Dining Services Ken Toong. “I’m a little concerned about how can we ensure the food is safe”.
Toong questions whether ready-made meals on UMass’ campus can be prepared and distributed safely throughout areas of Western Mass. like Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield. His concerns are realistic and would need to be addressed, but those involved with bringing a campus kitchen to Amherst are looking for space.
Senior Hotel Management Major Steven Graves envisions a campus kitchen at UMA that operates through outlets like The Hatch, located in the Student Union.Graves, a full-time employee at the Blue Wall, has been motivated to make a difference in local food insecurity after recognizing waste as the food industry’s biggest flaw.
“What we are facing here is the reluctance from Dining Services to share space”, said Graves in an email. “The Hatch, for example, closes early in the evening and is not open all weekend. I know this because I’ve seen it over the last three years. There is available storage space and plenty of room for the CKP to operate from during their off hours.Hampden DC is another similar situation”.
The campus kitchen would be used for storage space and preparation of hot meals with food leftover from community gardens, local restaurants, local farms, dining halls on campus, high school cafeterias and even whole-sale food with a shelf life that disallows it from being sold at local grocery stores. After meals are prepared at the designated campus kitchen they would be packaged and transported to individuals and community-serving agencies such as churches, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and survival centers.
While UMass Boston operates it’s own Campus Kitchen, Toong stresses the size of the Amherst campus presents more difficulties. With 15,000 students on a meal plan and service of about 45,000 meals a day, UMass Amherst Dining Services is the third largest campus dining operation in the country.
“UMass Amherst is a little bigger and a little different…Everything we do with food safety we take very seriously. For our credibility, reputation and for the sake of the students”, said Toong.
A campus kitchen at UMA would also differ from UMB’s in terms of management. Sodexo Dining Services operates the daily food services, facilities and management of student volunteers at UMB and eight other campus kitchens across the country where employees run workshops, provide recipes, train students to use equipment and help with outreach for new Campus Kitchens at Sodexo schools. A campus kitchen at UMA would not be overseen by dining services, but by student volunteers and a full-time staff member from the DC Central Kitchen, the parent organization of the Campus Kitchen Project. A certain percentage of volunteers at all campus kitchens are required to obtain ServSafe certification, the National Restaurant Association’s food safety and training certification program.
If dining services agrees to share space, their food donations would be protected from liability concerns under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. If space cannot be negotiated with dining services, Environmental Health Services Manager Larry Davis has presented a list of $60,000 worth of equipment from a blast-chiller to a truck with a lift that would be necessary for the group’s operations.
“It’s really hard for you to be sharing space with [dining services]. You’re putting huge amounts of money into this, you’re going to want a 7-day service”, said Davis in a meeting with Graves and his group on April 15.
Graves argues that using existing untapped resources is what makes the Campus Kitchen Project a sustainable initiative. Building a new kitchen specifically for the project would be counterproductive to it’s main mission. Funding concerns would also diminish once a feasibility study has been completed by dining services, as the DC Campus Kitchen would provide $30,000 in startup funding for the first three years of national affiliation.
The group has yet to contact potential meal delivery locations in fear of giving false hope when they cannot guarantee the project will push forward through the reluctance of dining services. On April 27, Graves, accompanied by group members Ben Johnson and David Barnstone, presented an overview of the project to the Environmental Performance Advisory Committee, where Dean of the College of Natural Sciences’ Steve Goodwin offered future discussion of the project in the weeks to come. “I’m sure we can find something that we can do to get this thing started,” said Goodwin.
Obstacles are not uncommon for an organization like the Campus Kitchen Project, and problems with startup vary from lack of dining service space to not having transportation or student volunteers. “There are always challenges with starting a Campus Kitchen”, said Maureen Roche, Director of the Campus Kitchen Project. “Many schools approach CKP or start the process of developing a Campus Kitchen and never open one because of the challenges…The key to success is flexibility on the part of everyone involved, dedication to eradicating poverty and hunger and a desire to be involved in the community for everyone’s benefit”.
Graves, Johnson, Barnstone and members of the student-run group collected over 1,000 signatures from other students who support their campaign; the most any student senate referendum has seen in such a short amount of time. Efforts to collect more signatures are underway, with hopes that support will serve as leverage when pushing for the administration’s go-ahead.
“It’s going to be tough to find someone who doesn’t support what we want to do, so it’s more about getting it to people who can spread the word”, said Barnstone, a freshman English major.
If efforts to organize a campus kitchen fall apart the group still hopes to curb hunger in Hampshire County, where over 10% of families are food insecure.
“Ideally we would have kitchen space and be able to have a focal point to the organization where we can meet up and store food”, said Johnson, a junior political science and resource management double-major.
“If that plan doesn’t work out, there’s always the possibility of doing bagged lunches.”