Hunger is a continuing problem in the U.S. that remains largely hidden, even though over 42 million Americans suffer from it. While 1 in 8 Americans go hungry, 60 million tons of produce worth $160 billion pounds are discarded annually in the U.S. What a waste! The reason for such waste sounds ludicrous, but it is nevertheless rooted in reality. Americans won’t buy produce that has the wrong shape or minor blemishes, so “imperfect” produce is being discarded at the source or by grocery stores. On top of that, the average American household throws away $640 worth of food annually, while a single restaurant discards 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food every year.
It’s hard to fathom the magnitude of the waste when millions of Americans are still struggling with hunger. Fortunately, many organizations, including campus kitchens in universities and colleges, are involved in recovering food that would have been wasted and repurposing the food to help the hungry. University of Kentucky’s Campus Kitchen is at the forefront of this effort.
University of Kentucky Campus Kitchen
Started in 2014, the Campus Kitchen at the University of Kentucky (CKUK) is housed in the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. CKUK is a student-driven initiative with a slim budget, and relies on student volunteers to carry out their mission.
- Students collect food that would otherwise have been wasted from the university’s dining facilities and nearby farms, farmers’ markets, restaurants and grocery stores;
- Students prepare healthy, balanced and nutritious meals with the food collected, using kitchen space in the university’s Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition; and
- Students package the meals and deliver them to organizations and low-income families and individuals.
Student volunteers also mentor and help equip the people in need with essential skills, knowledge and confidence for a healthy life.
Tammy J. Stephenson, assistant professor in the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, spoke highly of CKUK and its achievements to TUN. “The Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition is honored to serve as the home of the Campus Kitchen at the University of Kentucky,” Stephenson said. “Not only is CKUK reducing food waste and providing meals and nutrition education to those experiencing food insecurity, the student-driven organization also provides meaningful experiential learning and leadership opportunities to students from majors across campus. Through these experiences, students gain skills and knowledge to continue work in sustainability and finding solutions to end hunger, even after they have graduated from the University of Kentucky.”
Student research equips CKUK to help abate hunger year round
Since inception, CKUK has been making a difference locally. According to Stephenson, CKUK has rescued over 10,000 pounds of food over the past 3 years. This semester alone, “CKUK provided around 1,500 meals to those in need in central Kentucky,” Stephenson said.
But that’s not all. CKUK is now poised to help those in need even in cooler months when the supply of available produce dries up, thanks to one student’s research. That remarkable student is Anna Townsend, a graduating senior, who has been involved with CKUK since her freshman year and will leave a lasting impression on the organization. Townsend’s research on indoor gardening, which involved growing different types of lettuces in container, vertical and hydroponic gardens and assessing their feasibility, will enable CKUK to produce fresh vegetables in cooler months. She used only containers donated by other CKUK volunteers for her vertical garden, which limits consumer waste and makes for a sustainable way to grow produce. The vertical garden is “very malleable” and “can work in a room, outside of a building or by a window,” she said in a statement.
“Anna’s research this semester will guide CKUK’s future efforts in gardening and having a sustainable source of fresh produce to complement the meals prepared with recovered foods.” Stephenson, who also serves as Townsend’s research advisor, told TUN.
What inspired Townsend?
TUN spoke with Townsend directly to find out more about her involvement with CKUK and her inspiration for the research project. Townsend got involved with CKUK in the second semester of her freshman year because she loves to cook but had no access to a full kitchen living on campus. But then she learned “about the prevalence of hunger in Lexington, the state of Kentucky, and across the United States” through her involvement with the organization.
Townsend’s newfound knowledge spurred her on to volunteer her services to 2 other organizations in her sophomore year. First, she went to Washington, D.C. with the university’s Alternative Service Breaks during spring break of her sophomore year, where she volunteered with poverty- and hunger-relief organizations. She then spent the summer of that year as a Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty intern with the Vermont Community Garden Network, which increased her interest in “combating hunger and poverty by establishing community gardens at affordable housing sites.”
These experiences motivated Townsend to take on more challenges at CKUK, so she became a cooking and recovery shift captain. Now in her senior year, Townsend serves as vice president and garden fellow of the organization.
What made Townsend focus on indoor gardening research?
Townsend chose indoor gardening as her research project for a very simple reason. CKUK is able to recover produce from late spring through early fall, but there isn’t any produce to recover during cooler months, so it’s harder to help those in need during that period.
In late fall of 2016, therefore, Townsend got together with Amanda Hege, advisor to CKUK and director of community outreach for the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, and Connor VanMeter, president of CKUK, to discuss the establishment of a garden fellowship, so CKUK could “explore and advocate” sustainable agriculture by way of indoor gardens. CKUK applied to the Student Sustainability Council for funding, which was presented by Townsend, and $2,000 was awarded to fund the fellowship and start-up and operational costs of indoor gardens. Though the fellowship began in January 2017, Townsend began to plan the indoor gardens in December 2016.
The establishment of indoor gardens at the university will help CKUK feed the hungry even in cooler months. “By establishing an indoor garden, we are able to grow some vegetables, fruits, and herbs to maintain healthy, nutritionally dense meals for our clients,” Townsend said.
One person can make a difference
Townsend’s efforts and achievements prove that one person can have a positive impact. “Anna is an excellent reminder of the impact one person can make by pursuing a passion,” Hege told TUN. “By working with the Campus Kitchen at the University of Kentucky in the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, she saw a need for supplying fresh produce year-round and found a way to use her knowledge and experiences to fill the gap. We look forward to continuing to empower students as they follow Anna’s footsteps and foster the gardening and sustainability programs she created.”
Townsend believes that sustainability programs have an impact not just on the environment but also on students.
Sustainability programs are critical for maintaining both awareness of burgeoning environmental issues, as well as developing leadership, professionalism, and creativity in students. These programs teach students how they can make a difference in their community through service and research.
“By establishing indoor gardens for CKUK, I am more confident in my skills as a researcher and advocacy for preventable issues, such as food waste and hunger. As a result of my research, CKUK is able to support sustainable agriculture in several ways: maintaining indoor and outdoor gardens to provide food for healthy meals, teaching students about gardening and nutrition, and presenting this research at conferences to inspire other organizations and communities.”