Three days a week, in the basement of the Toomer residence hall at Auburn University, a group of students suits up in hair nets and protective booties to combat food insecurity.
These students serve in the Campus Kitchen at Auburn, part of the national, Washington, D.C.-based organization Campus Kitchen Project. About 200 students volunteer with Auburn’s affiliate each month, packaging and delivering meals to local organizations and homebound individuals in Lee County.
“It started here about five years ago, by a group of students who realized that there was a lot of food going to waste that could go to people in need in the community,” said Ginny Lampkin, president of the Campus Kitchen at Auburn University. “Eighteen percent of people in Lee County are food insecure, and 31 percent of students on Auburn’s campus are food insecure.”
People become “food insecure” by reducing the amount of food in their diets or by reducing the quality of food they consume, Lampkin explained. Campus Kitchen fights that problem, and the issue of waste, by collecting leftover food from campus dining halls and properly repacking and distributing it to the group’s community partners.
'What happens to the food waste?'
“Someone was telling me one time, ‘Man, we have all these buffets on campus. What happens to all that food waste?’” said Elena Skarupa, a shift leader with the group. Now a junior, Skarupa has been volunteering with Campus Kitchen since her freshman year. “It’s so nice to be like, ‘Well actually, I know. It’s Campus Kitchen!’”
That conversation was how Lampkin became involved in the group, she recalled. Skarupa and Lampkin were discussing it during a chemistry class they were in together, and Skarupa invited Lampkin to participate in a packing shift with Campus Kitchen.
“I came, I really enjoyed it, and I continued volunteering and got progressively more involved as I continued to serve,” Lampkin recalled. “Now, I’m lucky to serve as president and really support the team that’s so passionate about this cause.”
Meals don’t come exclusively from on-campus dining facilities. Campus Kitchen volunteers drive to Golden Corral in Opelika each night to gather leftover food from the restaurant as well.
“We’re one of the first off-campus businesses to be doing it,” said Angel Rodriguez, kitchen manager at Golden Corral. “I was approached by the head of the organization here in Auburn, explaining what the program is about and saying that they could help us out with the food that we would normally dispose of. It would go to somebody in need.
“Every night that we disposed of things that really could go to a needy person, my heart broke. So this is a great opportunity.”
Golden Corral cleared the proposal with its legal department, which said the restaurant would be protected by the Good Samaritan Act.
“We’re not making money on this,” Rodriguez said. “This isn’t anything about any kind of savings, because like I said, it would have been disposed of anyway. The fact that it’s going to someone in need, and we’re actually helping someone, that is payment in itself. It’s really heartwarming.”
Recovery numbers have doubled
Campus Kitchen’s recovery numbers, or the amount of food it has been able to collect for distribution, has nearly doubled since the partnership with Golden Corral began in November, Lampkin said.
The group is always looking for opportunities to expand, either by partnering with restaurants like Golden Corral, or with organizations where food is distributed. Auburn’s Campus Kitchen has 15 community partners, including The Salvation Army, I Am My Brother’s Keeper and the Auburn United Methodist Church food pantry, Lampkin said.
Campus Kitchen recently received a $5,000 grant from Publix Super Market Charities and a $4,000 award from Sambazon Corporation, a company that distributes acai berries.
The grant funding will go toward purchasing a golf cart to use for campus recoveries, Lampkin said.
Although Campus Kitchen is continually looking outward to the community, it is also looking inward to the students on its campus.
“We would like to start a community meals program for students on campus,” Lampkin said. “We already serve a lot of students. Those are people that we interact with on a daily basis, who are struggling to make ends meet and struggling to feed themselves. So I would say that is one of our main goals moving forward: to serve the Auburn community, but also the university.”
Volunteers don’t have to be students to be involved with the Campus Kitchen. While the majority of regular volunteers are members of the campus community, the organization welcomes anyone who wants to participate in a group packaging shift.
“I think it’s just important for citizens to invest in their community, to invest in those around them,” Lampkin said. “Ultimately, that will make everyone stronger.”