Feature Stories

Cooking connection

It's a hot August afternoon, and the inside of Ashley Owens' black SUV smells faintly of the meatballs, chicken and sautéed vegetables she helped package this morning. In the trunk is a red-and-white cooler packed with meals in plastic containers and tote bags filled with gourmet bread, fresh fruit and vegetables.

The food — all locally sourced and prepared by students — is made possible through Campus Kitchen at UGA (CKUGA). Launched in fall 2012, the program aims to increase access to adequate food among senior households in the community. It's also a powerful learning tool for students.

Client Allyson Meeler (right) unpacks provisions provided by CKUGA's Harrison as her granddaughter Autumn looks on. The program partners with the Athens Community Council on Aging's Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program to identify households in need; they receive food deliveries every other week.Client Allyson Meeler (right) unpacks provisions provided by CKUGA's Harrison as her granddaughter Autumn looks on. The program partners with the Athens Community Council on Aging's Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program to identify households in need; they receive food deliveries every other week. (Photos by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

En route to deliver meals to five different households, Owens, an intern with the program for almost two years, explains how she ran across Campus Kitchen as a work-study option.

"I had no idea it had anything to do with my major — I got pretty lucky," says the senior dietetics major, who plans to train as a nurse practitioner in geriatrics.

Owens considers working with elderly people a calling similar to teaching.

"[Working] with older people, you can see a difference you're making and in the end you can make a connection," she says. "You ... just have to watch me doing it to understand how much I love it."

And she's right. On this steamy afternoon spent hopping in and out of a hot car, hauling food and patiently waiting for clients to answer the door, Owens remains upbeat and focused. Before each visit, she's careful to share any special circumstances regarding a client: T. J. Shelton is blind and prefers that food be placed directly in his hands. Mildred Huff is a gregarious woman who loves to chat and may repeat the same funny stories a couple of times.

More than 100 clients look forward to deliveries every other week from CKUGA students and other volunteers-for some older adults it may be their only connection to the outside world. Owens says the visits are mutually beneficial.

Kirsten Allen, a sophomore pharmaceutical science major, rolls out dough in the kitchen of Talmage Terrace, which provides free access to its facility. CKUGA thrives in part through its strong community partners and enthusiastic volunteers.Kirsten Allen, a sophomore pharmaceutical science major, rolls out dough in the kitchen of Talmage Terrace, which provides free access to its facility. CKUGA thrives in part through its strong community partners and enthusiastic volunteers.

"The more hands-on experience the better. [There's] nothing compared to doing it in the real world," she says. She also credits the program with broadening her view of the local community. "It's humbled me. [Students] need to get out of the bubble and see more of Athens-there's a huge dichotomy. It's been an education."

Such experiential learning is the point of programs like Campus Kitchen, which aims to take students beyond buzzwords to understand how hunger and poverty affect society. The project, run out of the Office of Service-Learning under the offices of the vice presidents for public service and outreach (PSO) and instruction (OVPI), is part of a national network of universities called The Campus Kitchens Project.

UGA's program evolved out of a service-learning project for a women's studies class. A group of students developed the project to address issues of food waste and food insecurity in the Athens community. They partnered with the Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA) to identify grandparents raising grandchildren who needed assistance. The students sourced the food, prepared meals and delivered them to families in spring 2011. The next year, UGA's branch of Campus Kitchen was founded, the first in Georgia and 33rd overall. Funding for the program comes from PSO and OVPI as well as organizations like the AARP Foundation, CoBank Rural Hunger Solutions and the UGA Parents and Families Association, among others.

Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. A defining characteristic includes household members reducing their food intake and normal eating patterns due to a lack of money or other resources.  

When Owens or other CKUGA volunteers knock on the doors of clients like Shelton and Huff, it's a welcome visit. Shelton, 79, says that although he gets around and has friends, he doesn't have anyone else bring him food during the week.

Huff, 89, also credits the program with helping keep her kitchen stocked-especially with fresh items. "It's wonderful food! They bring me vegetables, and I love them," she says.

Together with community partners such as ACCA and the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, CKUGA has helped reduce food insecurity among seniors by more than 30 percent. 

The program's success has a lot to do with students like Owens. In addition to preparing and delivering meals to clients, students harvest fresh vegetables and recover surplus food from local restaurants, grocery stores and caterers. Last year, the program drew more than 400 students from across disciplines-from social work, foods and nutrition, and agriculture to geography and women's studies.

Founded in 2010, UGArden has quickly become a popular training ground for students as well as a community asset for its fresh vegetables. Student volunteers like Jay Morris, right, a senior health promotion and behavior major, harvest vegetables and learn about sustainable agriculture on the 4-acre plot off South Milledge Avenue.Founded in 2010, UGArden has quickly become a popular training ground for students as well as a community asset for its fresh vegetables. Student volunteers like Jay Morris, right, a senior health promotion and behavior major, harvest vegetables and learn about sustainable agriculture on the 4-acre plot off South Milledge Avenue.

"We touch so many important ideas-from nonprofit management to food insecurity and sustainability. We're kind of a perfect model for service learning and a great example of collaboration within the university," says Brad Turner, coordinator of Campus Kitchen at UGA.

Students enrolled in courses with a service-learning component usually complete 15-20 hours per semester. Faculty members provide students a variety of opportunities relative to their area of study. For example, a public health major may focus on the food delivery aspect of the program while a student studying nutrition learns to plan meals using appropriate USDA guidelines for older adults.

An important food source and partner is the UGArden, where students help harvest vegetables a couple of times a week. JoHannah Biang (BSA '09, MS '12), farm manager, and other workers guide new students.

"There's definitely some on-the-fly training," she says. "I tell students there's no such thing as stupid questions. They just have to have a willingness to do it and that's it-we can fill in the blanks."

That mentality applies to menu planning as well. Because food is donated from local grocery stores such as Trader Joe's and The Fresh Market, volunteers never know what to expect.

At one evening cooking session in August, Aiden Holley, a junior in international affairs, is charged with menu planning and guiding new volunteers in the kitchen of Talmage Terrace and Lanier Gardens Senior Living Community. Tonight's offerings include beef tips, chicken tenders and drumsticks, broccolini, eggplant, green peppers, basil and bags of potatoes.

"We get lots of random stuff," explains Holley, a Campus Kitchen intern who's also seeking certificates in international and organic agriculture. He cites as example the dozen boxes of frozen cherries awaiting transformation in the freezer. "I'm not sure what we'll do with them. Maybe make a bunch of pies at Thanksgiving ..."

Brad Turner (right), coordinator of CKUGA, provides instructions regarding a client to Harrison before the latter sets out on his delivery route. Students and volunteers deliver meals and donated food to approximately 100 clients in the Athens area on Thursday afternoons.Brad Turner (right), coordinator of CKUGA, provides instructions regarding a client to Harrison before the latter sets out on his delivery route. Students and volunteers deliver meals and donated food to approximately 100 clients in the Athens area on Thursday afternoons.

Preparing meals for large groups and navigating commercial equipment is an additional opportunity to learn through experience, especially for students whose culinary experience amounts to boiling water for a bag of Ramen noodles or microwaving a frozen entrée.

"I've learned how to cook meat-they call me the Meat Queen," Owens jokes. "When I first started, I learned that I didn't even know how to use a knife correctly."

Students like Owens and Holley serve as shift leaders for cooking crews of up to six volunteers. Shift leaders must complete food safety training-a written test and four-hour class-in order to supervise volunteers. In addition to learning the importance of wearing gloves and a hairnet, they learn safe practices for recovering food. For example, they cannot use cut fruit or dairy products due to the need for refrigeration. These items instead are passed on to other organizations to distribute.

Each semester brings a fresh crop of student volunteers like Rachel Deese to Campus Kitchen at UGA. A couple of weeks into her freshman year, Deese, a social work major, explains what attracted her to the program as she dices potatoes and tosses them into a stainless steel bowl during a cooking session.

"My favorite thing about Campus Kitchen is that it incorporates so many aspects of our UGA and Athens community: the UGArden, community stores, local assisted-living homes, and some of the older folks," she says. "CKUGA is a hands-on way to encounter people I would not typically interact with, and I love that!" 

Making an impact

The Campus Kitchen at UGA makes a difference in the local community. Numbers for FY 2015 include:

  • 300+ clients served
  • 313 Lunch Buddy visits
  • 51,900 lbs. of food recovered
  • 3,095 lbs. of fresh produce harvested
  • 17,700 meals delivered
  • 32,000 lbs. of food donated in addition to meals


— Margaret Blanchard, Georgia Magazine
(This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Georgia Magazine)

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