‘Nice Guys’ Award Honors Campus Kitchens Volunteers

836dckitchens.jpgCampus Kitchens Project’s win of the 2008 Acacia Federal Bank’s “Nice Guys Award” for a non-profit organization in early October reflected the determined efforts of more than a single organization.

For Kitchens director Maureen Roche, the award highlighted the handiwork of thousands of student volunteers, preparing thousands of meals for the homeless and downtrodden in impoverished communities across the United States. “I really can’t take too much credit,” said Roche. “It’s what the students do.”

Campus Kitchens Project (CKP), which began eight years ago as an outgrowth of the food service provider D.C. Central Kitchen, coordinates campus kitchens in 12 kitchens at 11 universities and one high school, Gonzaga College High School in northwest Washington, D.C., where the CKP headquarters is located.

From Gonzaga, Roche and her small staff coordinate the current and future operations of kitchens in schools as far off as St. Louis University and also locally in Virginia, where Washington and Lee University and the College of William and Mary run kitchens. Their role at the CKP hub, Roche says, is to ensure that students have the resources and money to find and prepare food, pulling in help from campus dining services, farmers, local charities and businesses.

In her office at Gonzaga, Roche keeps a map of the 50 U.S. states above her desk, adorned with small push pins that denote current, targeted and suggested operations. The project’s ambitions, as well as its success, is evident, with CKP looking to grow to 20 campuses by January 2009.

Given the recent economic downturn, Roche believes the CKP’s mission could be made clearer, the imperative more urgent. “We’re connecting social services and agencies together, creating a larger community network,” said Roche.

A recent example of CKP’s integral role in the community is the kitchen operation at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where a local service group, the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, or SNAP, held a weekly Thursday night dinner for the hungry. The dinner also provided local agencies an ability to come together and network, said Roche. “You had four or five agencies that were able to integrate at this very centralized facility.”

Due to budget shortfalls, however, SNAP could no longer afford to prepare meals for the weekly dinner and planned to cut it from their program. That is, until Emily Paulson and the Gonzaga University CKP team intervened, providing between 100 – 180 meals a week at a dinner that has become vital to the area community.

Gonzaga University is but one example, Roche emphasized. “The problems of poverty, homelessness and hunger can be overpowering; we can’t do much at a national level,” she said.

For Roche, it is the tireless work of the students within their communities that drives CKP, by modifying their individual kitchen projects to the needs of the community. “We’re bridging the wall between the campus and the community. As they are working together, they’re empowering themselves, the individuals they help, the campus and the country,” Roche said. “My job is to keep all of that going.”

While Roche and the CKP headquarters manages the broader tasks of running the operation – finding and awarding grants, setting up new operations and coordinating with corporate sponsors – it falls to the students to plan the kitchen budgets, develop ties with the local community and decide what role they would like the kitchen to play.

Students find support throughout the community, collecting fresh produce from farmers markets and leftovers from local dining places. In rural Nebraska, Roche recalls hunters donating up to a 100 pounds of fresh venison, which if properly fabricated by a USDA-approved butcher, provides a sorely needed protein base for students to use in meal preparation.

Because of the myriad possibilities afforded by the kitchens’ autonomy, the array of services varies at the different campuses and goes beyond providing meals, extending to programs such as job training for the homeless and nutrition education.

Roche also emphasized CKP’s strong relationship with college administrations and, increasingly, the campuses’ dining services. Sodexo, Inc. and Aramark, two of the leading U.S. dining services companies, collaborate extensively with CKP kitchens. “Aramark has taught students how to cook, kitchen safety and sanitation preparation,” said Roche. Additionally, Sodexo is a corporate sponsor of CKP.

Since 2001 CKP has employed 16,500 volunteers, who have contributed over 186,500 volunteer hours. Roche projects around 7,000 volunteers for 2008.

The future of CKP looks bright as the operation expands. “We’ll serve our one millionth meal next fall,” Roche said. With humility, Roche takes none of the credit. “It’s all the students and their desire to support kitchens on their campuses.” It remains her job to turn that desire into a service.

The D.C. Central Kitchen, whose executive director Michael Curtain is from Falls Church, hosts “Food Fight,” an annual benefit event where guests watch top chefs compete against each other as the Kitchen raises awareness of and funds for its operation. This year’s Food Fight is 6 p.m. on Nov. 11.