The “From the Cafeteria to the Community” program, run by Luther College, helps feed those in need and reduce food waste. After being interrupted in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been operational again since December 2020. Although it looks slightly different from that before COVID, there have been attempts to increase the ” balance and ensure that everyone feels safe, while providing a service to those facing food insecurity.
On Sunday and Wednesday evenings from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., the “From the Cafeteria to the Community” program packs foods from the Caf’s buffet lines that have been prepared but not consumed. The food is then frozen and deposited in local pantries on Mondays and Thursdays. The program currently delivers to Decorah Food Pantry, Northeast Iowa Community Action Food Pantry, and West Union’s Open Hands Food Pantry. Olivia Helland (’22) is the coordinator of the “From the cafeteria to the community” program. In addition to packing and delivering food, she also keeps in touch with all the different pantries, determining which places need food donations.
“The best part about this job is the act of giving back to my community,” Helland said. “Being able to work with students, staff and faculty, and members of the Decorah community, bonding with these people on an act that is doing better for our community is really nice. Diverting that food from the compost or landfill to needy families who receive these meals for little or no cost – it’s just a great feeling. It’s really nice to see Luther being a part of that and making efforts like this.
When the program resumed this school year, it was difficult to find people to help with the packaging of the food. While everyone followed all of Luther’s COVID-19 safety protocols, there were still many who were nervous about being around people who weren’t in their “bubble.” There were also weeks when regular volunteers had to quarantine themselves. The hard-working students were very grateful to the staff who stepped in to help pack the food during this time.
As the year progressed and cases of COVID-19 on campus declined, more and more people felt comfortable volunteering. The program packed just over 5,500 pounds of food this year, which is just under half of what they can give in a typical year. Decorah Food Pantry vice chairman Steven Zittergruen says Luther’s meal trays are popular with food insecure people and other beneficiaries. He also urges people to think about the fact that pantry customers have the same need for food as everyone else.
“It’s very expensive and very difficult to buy the types of food that Luther College gives us for free,” Zittergruen said. “Having ready meals, cooked by professional chefs, easy to microwave and eat at home, is something that, if you are a single mom working a few jobs, and you have to bring a child to an after school activity, being able to just take something out of the freezer and throw it in the microwave and put a meal on the table for your kids – rather than cooking from scratch – it’s a huge deal for families .
Zittergruen also wanted to remind Luther’s students that if they are struggling with food insecurity, they can use the pantry as Iowa residents. Especially around school holidays, when cafeteria hours are not always normal, he urges students to consider the resources that pantries can offer.
Although the school year is almost over, those interested in the “From the Cafeteria to the Community” program are encouraged to volunteer their time and contact Helland to [email protected]. There will also be a student worker position open for the program next year. Aimee Rothschild (’21) is currently a student worker for the program, and explained why she enjoyed her position this year.
“We work with volunteers, and it’s so interesting talking to them and seeing what Luther’s students in general are doing,” Rothschild said. “[We know] that the food we don’t eat goes to the people who need it, goes to the right place, and is not wasted.