With a little creativity and a lot of partner support, the Campus Kitchen at Virginia Tech continues to increase food access in the New River Valley during the COVID-19 crisis. The Campus Kitchen program is a partnership between two Student Affairs units, VT Engage and Virginia Tech Dining Services. The program addresses food security issues and food waste by recovering unserved food from campus dining centers, then delivering the food to nonprofit agencies in the New River Valley. 

As a center on campus focused on community engagement, VT Engage strives to understand community priorities and partner with organizations to address those priorities. As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, community partner organizations experienced an increase in the number of individuals and families in need of food. The VT Engage team pivoted to help meet the changing needs of the community. 

“We knew that if it was in any way possible, we wanted to keep Campus Kitchen running,” said Kas Church, the campus and community engagement coordinator for VT Engage. “Because of our incredible colleagues in Dining Services, we have been able to continue to get unserved food to our community partners.” Since its inception in fall 2015, hundreds of Campus Kitchen volunteers have diverted more than 188,000 pounds of unserved food from campus to community partners – the equivalent of more than 28 female African elephants. 

Campus Kitchen is normally a student-led program but once all student events were suspended, Virginia Tech employees volunteered to step in and run the program. During a typical week, Dining Services employees and VT Engage student leaders work together in six dining centers to repackage and set aside unserved food to be picked up on daily, weekday deliveries. But since March 18, employees in Dietrick, Owens, Au Bon Pain, and Southgate completely took over this part of the process. 

“Our first goal is always to serve our students,” said Anthony Purcell, assistant director for Dining Services’ Southgate Center. “But in this situation, rather than sending the food to a composting facility, Campus Kitchen allowed us to divert that food into our community where we knew there would be an increased need.”

Three VT Engage team members and an employee from the Dean of Students Office stepped up to deliver food three days a week – a change from the program’s typical schedule of six deliveries per week. Each week, those deliveries are brought to three partners: Radford-Fairlawn Daily Bread in Radford on Mondays, Plenty! Farm and Food Bank in Floyd on Wednesdays, and The Giving Tree Food Pantry in Christiansburg on Fridays. 

While the reduction in Dining Services’ operations meant that less unserved food is being produced on campus, at the same time dining employees worked to clear out stored food that could no longer be used for student meals. In the past two months, the Campus Kitchen team has delivered more than 10,100 pounds of food to community organizations.

“Our employees’ commitment to step up to volunteer and keep the Campus Kitchen program running during this crisis is another great example of our community's commitment to Ut Prosim (That I May Serve),” said Frank Shushok, vice president for Student Affairs. “This partnership between VT Engage and Dining Services is the result of so many people on our campus working together to address a community-identified priority and ensuring that we continue to get unserved food to folks across the New River Valley.” 

As the crisis progressed and Campus Kitchen’s regular partners’ needs changed, the team contacted checked with organizations to see if they could use the excess food to ensure as little food as possible went to waste. As the team contacted other organizations, they were able to set up temporary arrangements to deliver food to an additional five organizations during the crisis: New River Valley Agency on Aging, The Shelter, The Future Economy Collective, Hazel Bea Catering, and Millstone Kitchen.

Going forward into summer, the Campus Kitchen team expects the amount of unserved food will slow down considerably. But the team plans to continue as long as there is food available to bring to community partners. “We are committed to providing food to those in need in our community as long as possible,” said Meghan Weyrens Kuhn, interim director for VT Engage. “This team has worked tirelessly to ensure food from campus continues to flow to community partners.” 

Looking for ways to support the Virginia Tech and New River communities? Consider this list of resources:

-Written by Lindsey Gleason and Kas Church