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Saint Louis University Students Do The Cooking For Their Elderly Or Disabled Neighbors

Knock, knock. Knock, knock. Campus Kitchen!

With each knock on a door, St. Louis University students Shannon Leahy and Max Clifton were completing a chain of good deeds by dozens of volunteers with Campus Kitchen at St. Louis University. Every week, the students collect and organize, slice and dice, sauté, cook, bake and assemble donated fruits, vegetables, breads and meats into free nutritious meals for their elderly and disabled neighbors who live in high-rises just across Grand Boulevard.

Leahy leads the last shift of volunteers in this lengthy relay. On Monday afternoons, her delivery crew of about a half-dozen crosses the busy thoroughfare in front of Reinert Hall to make the short trek to Grand View Tower Apartments where they deliver meals to more than 40 residents who have been referred by social service agencies.

Sometimes, the door will open slowly. A quick thank you. The door closes again.

Other residents want to talk. 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon
Martha Ellebracht, 78, receives meals twice a week.

John Gipson will often wait in the hallway outside his apartment for the group of students who arrive just after 3:30 every Monday and Wednesday with meals cooked by the kitchen shift on Sunday evening. Gipson enjoys seeing the students.

“They’re great. I love them,’’ Gipson said. “I want a hug.”

Martha Ellebracht, 78, who lives alone, said she appreciates the twice-a-week meals because she has lots of medical expenses.

“It helps my income,’’ she said. “It means a lot to me.’’

A recent delivery included fish, potatoes and broccoli and a colorful fruit salad of watermelon, pineapple and orange slices.

“They fix it so it looks good,” she said.

Leahy, a senior majoring in accounting and finance, is from Chicago. She said students who volunteer regularly get to know the residents.

“It’s nice for those people to see a familiar face every week,’’ she said. “You see how grateful people can be for what you’re doing. You can see how you can help the St. Louis community right across the street.’’

 Making A Difference In Someone’s Day

While students are making deliveries on Mondays, another group prepares meals for Tuesday delivery.

SLU’s Campus Kitchen, a nonprofit organization, serves about 400 meals a week to about 275 clients, including some who live in Council Tower Senior Apartments. In addition to individuals, the students provide an evening meal for homeless women and children staying at the Our Lady’s Inn emergency shelter.

Campus Kitchen is housed at Reinert Hall in partnership with the university and Chartwells, the food service company that operates the residence hall’s dining facility. Students begin cooking at 4 p.m., when the kitchen is not busy.

Jenny Bird, programs manager and coordinator, oversees the student-run operation. University staff and faculty members pitch in during breaks when students are away from campus.

Holly Faivre, president of the organization, has run a cooking shift for two years. On this day, she was creating a menu using pre-cooked pork roasts. She bounced around the kitchen, assigning food prep chores to her volunteers and raving about the “carrotness” of organic carrots donated by Trader Joe’s in Brentwood, one of the main suppliers to the organization. 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon
Students plan their menus around donated items.

Faivre’s menus emphasize nutrition and natural ingredients.

“We’re cooking real food here,’’ she said.

Once a week another shift of volunteers drive to the store and haul back large plastic sacks stuffed with produce, meats, day-old breads and cakes that are still good but past their sale dates. These grocery cast-offs are “repurposed” into nutritious meals.

Faivre said people probably don’t realize that it takes as many as 20 volunteers to produce the meals that are delivered to their homes.

“Someone brought this food here. Someone organized this food. Someone put it in the fridge. Someone else came to thaw it out. These people are cutting. These people are delivering it,’’ she said. “All these people are involved for one little square tray of food. But that one little square tray of food is making a huge difference in someone’s day.’’

Faivre, a senior from Dixon, Ill., said she works about seven hours a week at Campus Kitchen.

“I discovered it my sophomore year when I switched my major to dietetics, and I wanted to get into a kitchen,’’ she said. “I belong in a kitchen. I feel like I was put on the earth to cook and feed people so I was looking for that outlet, and Campus Kitchen definitely delivered.’’

Faivre is proud that students run the program.

“Nothing could happen without the students,’’ she said. “I think that really speaks to our generation. Sometimes people think we’re self-absorbed, but I think we are quite the opposite. We want to change the world and we want to give back, and the group of volunteers we have every week prove that point. They’re here for no one but the people they’re serving. And I think it’s a real awesome thing.’’

SLU Was First Of Nation's Campus Kitchens 

There are nonprofit Campus Kitchens on 34 college and high school campuses in the U.S., including Washington University. They are members of the national nonprofit The Campus Kitchens Project.

The SLU program, started in 2001, was the first Campus Kitchen. It was a pilot program for a national initiative of by DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen in Washington.

“We want to develop the students that are volunteers as leaders and the philanthropists of tomorrow,’’ Bird said. “So we give them a lot of responsibility in the kitchen. They’re the shift leaders. They’re food safety-certified so they can plan  the meals, run the shifts during the school year. ‘’

In addition to Trader Joe’s the group also gets donations from Chartwells, Operation Food Search and campus food drives.

“We have a mission of reducing food waste so it’s not just getting the food to feed hungry people but also reducing waste,’’ Bird said. “Food that would be thrown away otherwise -- we get it and bring it back and make it into meals.’’ 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon
Thanksgiving meals included homemade stuffing made with day-old breads.

The biggest food drive of the year is at Thanksgiving. During this year’s Turkeypalooza about 80 volunteers helped deliver 1,140 pounds of groceries, in addition to 400 meals. Before breaking for Thanksgiving, the students cooked and delivered “double meals” of turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, stuffing, green bean casserole and pie. Because they would deliver only one meal that week, they also gave their clients small sacks of groceries.

The nearest grocery store is about a mile from the apartment complexes, and it can be difficult for some of the elderly and disabled clients to shop for groceries, Bird said.

“I’ve seen our clients grocery shopping at the gas station,’’ she said.

The program helps to bridge the gap between the university and its neighbors, said Bird, a SLU graduate. The meals send a message that students care.

“Many of our clients are elderly. Many are homebound. They live right in the midst of this campus, but they don’t necessarily have any contact with it,’’ Bird said. “They live looking down on the hustle and bustle of campus life, but they don’t always have a share in that life.’’

Bird said that even though some clients don’t chat with the students who come to their doors, she knows they are appreciative.

“Some of our clients who seem the most unfriendly or resistant -- they’re the first ones who call when the students are going to be on break and ask, ‘When will the students come back?’ We’re not just fighting hunger, we’re also fighting isolation.’’

“It’s a win-win for everybody”

Bobby Wassel, manager of SLU’s community service office, said the university provides operational support -- facilities and maintenance -- and some funding for programming and recruiting. He describes Campus Kitchen as a win-win for everyone. 

Credit Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon
Senior Emily Meingast sorts donations she picked up at Trader Joe's in Brentwood.

“SLU in general is very involved in the community,’’ he said. “This is another mechanism for us to become involved in the community, and it’s fairly easy for students to get involved. So many of our students don’t have a car so it’s limited as to what they can do for the community. But we have a nonprofit right on campus.’’

Campus Kitchen is also a popular volunteer opportunities for students who are fulfilling community service requirements. He noted that the Washington-based community kitchen that founded the program specifically picked SLU for its pilot program.

“They gravitated toward SLU because it was in the middle of a city and a Jesuit school. The Jesuit mission has a big focus on community service, and they thought they would have the most success here,’’ Wassel said.

Emily Meingast, a senior from Chicago, volunteers every Monday to pick up donated food and then helps sort it. She was surprised when she saw the scope of the Campus Kitchen operation and how many students have roles. She picked her job because she felt it was something she could do every week -- and it didn’t require cooking.

“I am an expert sorter,’’ Meingast said, laughing. “Anyone can sort through food. It’s easy to make a difference.’’

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.
Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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