Small Grant, Big Results for Local Hunger Projects

May 25, 2011

Five hundred dollars doesn’t sound like much in the world of non-profit grants, but a group at Mary Baldwin University is stretching every penny of a recent award from Youth Serve America (YSA) and Sodexo Foundation to combat hunger in our area.

Addressing local food insecurity is the primary focus of Spencer Center employee Robyn Stegman ’09 in her role as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) representative on campus. The YSA/Sodexo grant — secured in April — provides seed money for nearly a dozen courses, projects, and meetings that began this spring and will continue though 2012.

“The funding is great because it is enough to generate ideas, get a project started, and inspire other people and organizations to step in and contribute,” Stegman said. The grant application was completed by Mary Baldwin student Linnea Barklund ’13, a changemaker intern at the Spencer Center who took the lead to create and maintain several garden sites on campus during the 2010–11 academic year.

The biggest impact to date of Operation Hunger Reversal, the name of the project supported by the grant, was its use in providing transportation for students who volunteered in the community during the May Term course Assisting Local Food Populations. Nine students served nearly 2,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley through Valley Mission, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and Verona Food Pantry, said Kathy McCleaf, associate professor of heath and studies of gender and sexuality. Even more important than the number of people helped were the connections students made with community organizations.

“I was thrilled to see the learning leap they all made, from providing a service, to recognizing the true needs, to thinking about future solutions,” said McCleaf, who designed the course as the next step from her class Culture and Wellness. She encouraged students to write “field notes” each day, and the class launched a blog to share reflections.

“I guess I never really thought about how many people that look no different than anyone of us are in need of food … I saw the children’s backpacks that were getting ready to be prepared to give to children in school to have meals. I think I was more surprised at the reality that some children really do not always have a meal,” wrote freshman Mariah Jezek after her first day working at the Verona Food Pantry.

The group also organized two forums in mid-May to invite others to talk about how to use remaining funds to collaborate on food insecurity issues. One idea generated from the on-campus discussion was to pump up promotion of the athletic department’s Can Across the Conference food drive in fall 2011, Stegman said. Another meeting with local officials centered on supporting policy to increase food security in the community, which resulted in the creation of an Mary Baldwin student liaison position next year.

Other initiatives supported by Operation Hunger Reversal illustrate the broad reach of the YSA/Sodexo grant:

  • In partnership with Staunton Green 2020, a grove of fruit trees and berry bushes for public consumption will be planted near the Stafford Street community garden in Staunton.
  • Work-study positions focusing on food insecurity are proposed for 2011–12, including an opportunity to work with vendors at local farmer’s markets to create a system for accepting food stamps and capturing leftover produce for food banks.
  • Mary Baldwin students will continue to collaborate with the Valley Crop Mob, led by students from James Madison University.
  • Hunger, Poverty, and Local Food Systems has been added as a focus area for the Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement.
  • Through the President’s Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge, Stegman has a goal of involving more than 100 people from diverse faith tradition in a service project to address food insecurity.

“We have so many ideas and projects in the works,” Stegman said, “and the recent grant really helped formalize our commitment to tackling food insecurity.”