Partner Perspectives are written by members of the Community Consulting Board through the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. These articles provide examples of partnerships, best practices, and other insights from the viewpoint of Illinois State University’s community partners.
By Tara Ingham, executive director, Midwest Food Bank
What do hairnets, Greek life, a College of Business professor, and an Honors Molecular Biology student have in common? They are all playing an active role in the mission of Midwest Food Bank to feed those experiencing hunger throughout our community and beyond. Our mission states that “as a faith-based organization, it is the mission of Midwest Food Bank to share the love of Christ by alleviating hunger and malnutrition locally and throughout the world and providing disaster relief; all without discrimination.”
Simply put, Midwest Food Bank gathers food and gives it away to those experiencing hunger and food insecurity.
We have 12 locations: 10 throughout the United States, one in Kenya, and one in Haiti. Our location in Normal serves over 500 food pantries and nonprofits with the food they need for their clients experiencing hunger. But this mission is difficult to execute without a strong presence of donors and local volunteers, including our university community. Food must be gathered and sorted, bulk food repackaged, and boxes distributed. And ensuring that 99.3 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to feeding people means that our staff of one part-time and four full-time employees rely heavily on volunteer and donor efforts.
Repackaging bulk food provides many opportunities for individual volunteers and groups to contribute toward the mission. Most of the annual $65M of food we distribute from our Normal warehouse comes from large food manufacturers or vendors with excess product on hand. This means that items like a pallet-size box of crackers or a 1,200-pound vat of cereal are often on hand and ready for volunteers to repackage. We are frequently blessed by assistance from the Food, Nutrition & Dietetics Club and various other clubs, sororities, and fraternities from Illinois State University, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Heartland Community College for these projects. And, of course, donning hairnets for these projects makes for some entertaining group pictures.
Another blessing comes from the various civic-minded faculty who work hard to build community engagement into their course programming. Rick Wells, Assistant Professor with ISU’s College of Business, creates an excellent example of civic-minded coursework. Each semester, Wells invites us into the AGR 201(Resources, Food and Society: A Global Perspective) classroom for an overview of Midwest Food Bank, food sourcing, and food insecurity concepts. During non-pandemic times, Wells also required students to do volunteer hours at MFB. He follows those activities up with assignments tying students’ volunteer experience to the course concepts. Ultimately, students see first-hand how resources and food sourcing affect our local community and their role in a solution. And the feedback from students? The experience is often one of their most influential highlights during their undergraduate studies.
Volunteer student interns also make a significant impact. We do not normally have contact with our food recipients when distributing food to our partner pantries. But Nutrition and Dietetics student interns have helped bridge that communication gap by lending help with our Healthy Bites newsletter. By featuring budget-conscious recipes that maximize the food products we are distributing and basic health tips, together we are offering inclusive solutions to food insecurity.
Other internship opportunities are a creative endeavor with our college community. Our small staff and intense workload mean there is not always time or effort available to craft expertly-designed internship programs. But partnering with interested students or faculty to design new programs on the fly has also benefited our organization.
Take student Teni Shosanya, for example. Shosanya is finishing her freshman year at ISU as a Molecular and Cellular Biology major in the Honors Program. Spending her first 15 years in Nigeria, she is interested in helping the food insecure globally. We often find Shosanya serving during our distribution events and are humbled by her tenacity to help others. Putting this passion into purpose led us to offer her a volunteer internship on our Board of Directors this upcoming summer and fall. The benefits are two-fold: present an opportunity for Shosanya to grow her leadership skills while helping Midwest Food Bank with projects to connect our college student community to our mission.
The evolving relationship between Midwest Food Bank and our collegiate community is one of dual benefits that is not taken lightly. These co-education opportunities allow students to put classroom theories into practice and stretch our team’s understanding of food insecurity in the community in which we serve through reverse education from faculty and volunteer interns. We are thankful for the engagement and continued relationships built with faculty and students.