MAREN CLARK, Staff Writer—Panic shoppers and factory shutdowns leave grocery shelves empty. People are stuck in their homes, worried about their job security. Cafeterias change course or shut down entirely. COVID-19 is making food scarcity a larger and more visible problem, and current college students can be part of the solution.
Schools are one way food needs have been tracked and met in the past, but as more and more students go remote, cafeterias become less and less available. With needs increasing and workers running thin in food and labor, the country faces a supply and documentation issue, the likes of which could multiply hunger in the population.
Data Analytics major Austin Burgess ‘22 is working with the Mid-Ohio Food Collective to find and organize information for a project of national proportions. This data, and the software with which Denison students are preparing it, will “paint the picture of what food security looks like in communities from county, to state, to national level,” he said.
The software is called FreshTrak. It is a platform that will allow food banks all over the country to better understand the communities they serve and the obstacles at play in food access. This project began as a smaller platform created for a food bank network in Ohio.
The Mid-Ohio Food Collective (MOFC) is a partner of the national hunger-relief organization and food bank network Feeding America®. MOFC obtains food which is then distributed by their 680 member agencies—as in, brick and mortar food bank locations—throughout Ohio.
Burgess and the two classmates also assigned to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective are guided by Ty Henkaline, managing director of data and insights at Singularity University to gather and organize data from counties and cities across the United States. This data will help make regions of food insecurity, and individual need, more visible. Henkaline and SU colleague Darlene Damm published an article titled “Impact Spotlight: Highlighting the Mid-Ohio Food Collective,” last updated this September, about the software initially developed at the MOFC by Mark Mollenkopf.
Mollenkopf designed a technological solution for the blindspots and inefficiencies of analog food bank records and information. The technology he created is called PantryTrak. It “enables food distributors (food pantries, shelters, food delivery services, farmer’s markets, schools, etc.) to use technology to register their clients, make reservations, record distributions, track inventories, meet compliance standards, as well as provide monthly reports to donors and foundations,” the article by Damm and Henkaline said.
Mollenkopf and his team also designed technology to collect individual client information “relevant to their well-being, such as whether they are also receiving distributions of diapers and clothing, personal care products, back-to-school supplies or other types of counseling or support services.”
Some Denison students may recognize Henkaline from the session(s) he gave in this summer’s Business Essentials course. He lives in Granville.
Burgess explained his contribution to FreshTrak: “We are building a dashboard that shows community insight,” which is whatever information they can get about the needs of the community they serve, “that shows what food insecurity looks like at each level.” The levels go from
national, to state, to county.
“The food insecurity metric was created by Feeding America and we have data from that project, information from Consumer Price Index,
census, national transit… ” Burgess said. “We see based off of those food and security numbers what factors go into higher and lower levels of food insecurity.”
On a more community scale, Denison’s role in food access includes the Denison Food Pantry and membership in the Food Recovery Network (FRN). The Food Recovery Network brings unserved college dining food to hungry people.
Maria Kennedy, a junior Environmental Studies Ecosystem Conservation major, helps organize the Denison Food Recovery Network that packages and labels dining hall food for donation. She says it is a “national organization committed to fighting food waste and feeding people.” The volunteers package and label leftover dining hall food and salvage leftover food from the dining halls “that then gets picked up by local agencies such as the Salvation Army who then serve it to local community members.” The leftovers are packaged, weighed and labelled before being set aside on a designated shelf in a fridge in the Huffman Dining Hall kitchen.
Students can get a free meal swipe when they volunteer after lunch and dinner with FRN. The partner agencies for Denison’s Food Recovery as listed on the FRN Ohio website are Salvation Army, Men’s Shelter, Water’s Edge, and United Church of Granville. Huffman has donated 1,729.09 pounds of food since Sept. 28, and Curtis has collected 332.21 pounds, as of Oct. 21st.
Similarly, students can get groceries donated from local nonprofits on Tuesdays in Higley 008. Faculty and staff donate as well. According to Denison’s website, CLIC created the Food Pantry in response to a study on barriers to student financial well-being that the school conducted in 2015-2016.
Denison Food Pantry is run by Denison Community Association students like Cordell Pugh ‘23, who answered questions about requirements and donations. This resource operates Tuesdays 6-8pm and Fridays 2-4 out of the basement of Higley Hall on the Academic Quad.
Out of the crisis of 2020 has come another program, FarmLink, that Kennedy notes is similar to Food Recovery Network. Instead of college dining halls, it salvages food from farms. FarmLink takes food from restaurant suppliers that would have gone to waste in the shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and delivers it to food banks across the country. Check out their website for more information, including stories about the farmers themselves as well as those who benefit from the food banks to which FarmLink supplies, at farmlinkproject.org.
For just 15-30 minutes of work with Food Recovery, students get a free meal. “We still have multiple shifts empty at both of the dining halls now. So if anyone (especially seniors without a meal plan) is interested in recovering food and getting a free meal,” says Jenny Xiong, ‘21, the volunteer coordinator at Curtis. “Join us!”
For those interested in the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, you can visit their “Get Involved” page at https://www.midohiofoodbank.org/get_involved/. Contact Susie Kalinoski ([email protected]) to volunteer at Denison Food Pantry or to do the Food Recovery Network.