Lisa Abraham

KENT: In a freezer in the kitchen of Beall Hall at Kent State University, dozens of deep-dish cheesecakes are stacked up, waiting to be thawed and served as dessert.


They were prepared by students taking a baking course as part of the university’s hospitality management major. What makes these cakes so special is that until very recently, they would have been thrown in the trash, not saved in the freezer.


That was until a fateful spring break trip in 2010, which sent staff and students home with the kernel of an idea: Reclaiming food from across the campus, saving it from being wasted and putting it to good use.


The Campus Kitchens Project at Kent State will soon mark its first anniversary. In just one year, student volunteers have saved nearly 14,000 pounds of fresh, edible food from the trash and have repurposed it into nearly 10,000 meals to feed the needy in Portage County.


The spring break trip in 2010 wasn’t your typical Daytona Beach run, with students working on their tans and another case of beer. This group of students headed to Washington, D.C., where they toured the D.C. Central Kitchen and met its founder, Robert Eggers. The nonprofit organization turns leftover food into meals for the needy and offers job training to once homeless and hungry individuals.


The Campus Kitchens Project is a national program spawned from the D.C. Central Kitchen, which encourages campus-based operations. So far, 31 universities have opened Campus Kitchens, but Kent’s is the only one in Ohio.


Anna Gosky, senior special assistant for quality initiatives and curriculum at KSU, was on that spring break trip and was so impressed with what she saw, she came home determined to start a Campus Kitchen at the university. It took a year of planning, but by February 2011, the Campus Kitchen found its home, staffed with eager student volunteers and blessed with the kitchen space from a dining hall no longer in use. Gosky and chef Ed Hoegler of KSU’s Hospital Management Program supervise the project.


Over the past year, student volunteers have become expert scavengers, culling leftover food from campus food service, sporting events and the hospitality management program, in which students routinely produce a wide variety of baked goods and other food in class. Until the kitchen started claiming the food, much of it had gone to waste.


Kitchen manager Lisa Hofer, a senior hospitality management major from Pittsburgh, said when students take baking classes, professors always give them the chance to take home their projects. Some students do, most don’t. Food that wasn’t taken home was tossed in the trash. No longer.


Hofer and other volunteers are happy to claim them, stocking the freezer with cakes, pies, bread and other items.


Food comes from a variety of other sources, including local restaurants, farms, farmers markets, and the public. Farms have allowed students to go into their fields in the summer to pick crops for use in the kitchen, and a prize-winning hog from the county fair was donated, resulting in a freezer filled with pork chops and loin roasts.


After less than a year in operation, the kitchen already is gathering accolades. It received an Excellence in Operations Award at the National Campus Kitchens Project’s annual conference last fall, one of just three schools to receive the recognition.


The Campus Kitchen project has given students a place to volunteer their time, and has helped extend the resources of Family & Community Services Inc. of Kent, which operates hot meal programs at Kent Social Services and the Center of Hope in Ravenna. Each week, students use the food they have reclaimed to prepare the hot meals served every Thursday at the two locations.


Ann Marie Mann, director of community outreach services for Family & Community Services, can’t say enough about what the Campus Kitchen means to the Kent-Ravenna community, where the need for hot meals has increased 20 percent in the last year.


“They have been a fabulous partner,” she said. “More and more working-class families are coming in.”


Because of the extra resources provided by the student kitchen, the hot meal sites were actually able to be open to serve Christmas Eve dinners this year, Mann said.


Each week, the student volunteers gather in the kitchen of Beall Hall to wash, chop, cook and package enough meals to feed about 200 needy Portage County residents.


Hofer, who holds one of just two paid positions at the Campus Kitchen, is responsible for keeping track of what food is in the kitchen’s pantry and freezer, and deciding from week to week how the resources will be used to create the next meal.


The job, Hofer explained, is not much different from what everyone does when making dinner at home. She looks in the cupboards, the refrigerator and the freezer, considers what she has and decides how to best put it together for a well-balanced meal. However, it is made easier by the use of Google Docs, which allows her to check on inventory from her computer any time of day or night.


Sometimes volunteers will present an idea for a meal that they want to supervise, and Hofer is happy for the help, noting that her strengths are in operations management, not recipe creation.


One recent Wednesday, students were putting together tuna-zucchini patties, pasta with Alfredo sauce, tuna and peas and tossed salad, the recipes for which had been developed by hospitality management student Jessica Kalar.


Kalar, a Mentor native, said the recipes were based on what was available — plenty of tuna — and what she thought would be tasty. Her tuna patties with grated zucchini were a riff on crab cakes. The meal also would include potato rice soup and sweet potato pies made in culinary classes.


Beyond making meals, Gosky said students are involved at the centers where the food is served, offering cooking classes and nutrition advice on how to prepare healthful meals at home, and how-to videos on using kitchen equipment and the importance of good sanitation.


Kalar said her work in the campus kitchen has helped her to realize that she likes running a kitchen best, and hopes someday to find a job as a sous chef in a restaurant, not an executive chef, so that she can use her skills in a more hands-on way. She also appreciates how the volunteer work the students do is “empowering the less fortunate” to be able to cook and better care for themselves.


Hofer said the kitchen is a good opportunity for hospitality management students to use and improve their skills, so they do their best to make meals that are restaurant-worthy, and presented with the same kind of garnish, flair and creativity. Soup is never served right from the can, but rather is used as a basis for sauces or other dishes that require a better stretching of the volunteers’ culinary skills. Some recent meals included stuffed pork chops and salmon with lemon caper sauce.


Mann said the extra effort is appreciated. “Our clients wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to try such a variety of foods that we receive,” she said.


Donated canned goods that can’t be used to create dinners are given to Family & Community Services for the grocery bags they give away, or are used for food backpacks given to needy schoolchildren on Fridays to ensure they will have something to eat over the weekend.


The kitchen volunteers come from majors beyond hospitality management— nursing, accounting and nutrition and dietetics. In its first year, more than 420 students have volunteered. Gosky said many professors try to incorporate volunteer service into their curriculums and will make students aware of the kitchen as an opportunity.


There are benefits to the students too, Gosky noted. Many of them have never picked up a knife before, so they learn valuable life skills about how to cook, she said.


Gosky said the kitchen is willing to accept food from many sources, including grocery stores, restaurants, banquet halls, farmers markets, farms, and other food retailers. All donations are covered by the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects donors from legal liability when donating food to charity.


If more food is donated, students eventually may be able to cook an additional day each week for the centers.


The students also appreciate donations of large, disposable aluminum pans, which they use to pack the cooked meals and transport them to the meal sites.


Anyone who wishes to donate can contact Gosky at 330-672-8004.


Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at labraham@thebeaconjournal.com.