Call Lauren Palmer cynical or call her smart, but a year ago, the senior psychology sociology double major from Mountainburg, was hesitant about the evolution of the program she was about to pursue.
Palmer originally proposed the idea of a food recovery program to volunteer organization Because We Can, of which she’s a chairwoman, when she heard President Robin Bowen addressing the idea at a student meeting. The following year saw meetings, conferences and more meetings for the group, which is now more than 100 volunteers strong. Palmer says some of her expectations even waned.
“It feels different talking about it than putting the food in the pan and taking it to the people,” Palmer said. “I’ve been talking about it for a year, at least. I was thinking it might never happen.”
Despite being tested by time, Palmer can now attest to the fact she had a hand in making the first food recovery program Arkansas Tech University has ever had.
The program, called Campus Kitchen at Arkansas Tech University, has, as of Wednesday, January 27, already recovered over 700 pounds of food.
“When you do it is when it really gets you,” said Kendall Tubb, a junior psychology and sociology double major from Little Rock and chairwoman of Because We Can. “We won the grant competition and I was super excited, but then we got it up and running. That was absolutely different; it’s not an idea anymore.”
That idea has branched into 40 volunteers, 10 recovery shifts, and an average of 91 pounds of recovered food per night.
“I’ve been working for this company for almost ten years and one of the most consistent concerns that the associates have is, ‘why are we throwing away all this food?’” said Joshua Gist, assistant director of dining services. “Now we have an answer to that.”
The partnership between Chartwells and Because We Can has flourished and shows potential for strengthening.
“Part of the excitement I have of working this program with Because We Can is because of some of the energy they have and the passion they have for what they’re doing,” Gist said. “My staff is excited about it and it shows.”
No matter the shift, the volunteers are dedicated to what they’re doing.
“They’re volunteering their time, and as we all know, time is money,” Gist said. “They’re getting up super early in the morning to get this food, and they’re getting here later in the evening to pack it up.”
The evening shift, which is expected to arrive at the back of the cafeteria door by 7:20 p.m., prepares the food to be delivered the next morning.
The process requires volunteers to wash their hands, don gloves and some sort of hat and form an assembly line that begins by transferring the food to a transportable aluminum tin. From there, another assembly line of volunteers measures the weight, takes the temperature and records both the current weight and temperature of the container.
By 8:30 p.m., the kitchen has been cleaned and the containers now sit in a walk-in fridge for the morning shift of volunteers.
Said morning volunteers transfer the containers to plastic tubs in the backs of their cars. After properly securing any liquids, they drive off to Manna House or Main Street Mission, just two of the organizations that can take and disperse the recovered food.
“Our goal is to work everyone into the mix, but we just aren’t there yet,” said Sean Huss, associate professor of sociology and faculty advisor to Because We Can.
While Main Street Mission may be the primary facility receiving the food, it’s not going to waste; a chorus of “thank you” and “God bless y’all” ring out from the occupants thankful for the work Because We Can is doing.
On the way back to campus, morning shift volunteers think about where they want the future of this project to go.
“We don’t want a temporary fix,” said Cody Beaver, a junior sociology major from Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We want to fix the community of Russellville for good.”