Students facing food insecurity sometimes face the additional barrier of a lack of basic cookware and knowledge about food preparation. Simply put, when they pick up food from a food pantry, they might not be able to properly prepare it.
The School Street Food Pantry’s new cookware program is looking to change that. Through the program, students will receive a kitchen starter set. They will also watch a series of instructional videos offering nutritional information, cooking techniques, and safety tips.
“We want to give our community of students the tools and knowledge they need to be able to prepare at home the food they find at the School Street Food Pantry,” said Dr. Amy Bardwell, assistant professor in Illinois State’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Bardwell is collaborating with other faculty and staff on the instructional and research components of the program.
“The main objective of the project is helping the students gain confidence in their knowledge of nutrition and cooking techniques along with some basic food safety tips, but also to provide them with a starter kit for their kitchen.”
According to Doris Groves, board chair for the School Street Food Pantry, much of the work of the pantry to date has resulted from collaborations across the community. The pantry depends on local residents, the support and services from the First United Methodist Church of Normal, and donations, volunteers, and other contributions from Illinois State University.
The launch of the School Street Food Pantry cookware program adds two more important collaborators to those supporting the pantry—Molina Healthcare and the MolinaCares Program. The organization recently provided $5,000 to the pantry to launch the cookware program. The funds will cover the cost of the cookware and the video production.
Molina Healthcare is a managed Medicaid organization selected by the state of Illinois to cover 330,000 people enrolled in Medicaid. The organization’s connection to the School Street Food Pantry began several years ago when Community Engagement Manager Tammy Lackland donated food to the pantry from a local Molina event.
Lackland began to regularly donate food from Molina to the pantry, and she struck up a friendship with Groves in the process. During one such donation, the cookware project was discussed, ultimately leading Lackland to approach Molina Healthcare Plan President Matthew Wolf ’06 about a donation from Molina.
As an Illinois State alum, Wolf was excited for the opportunity to be able to support an organization that touches students at Illinois State. “When Tammy came to me with this idea, I said ‘when can we do it, how soon can we do it, and I’m going to be there.”
A formal check presentation ceremony took place at the First United Methodist Church of Normal on September 17. “This program is helping students build confidence,” Wolf said during the ceremony, “and I could not be more appreciative to be back at Illinois State University. This is the home of where I gained my confidence to be a leader of our health plan at Molina Healthcare of Illinois.”
According to Wolf, Molina strives to do more than just help individuals in need through medical care. They regularly support initiatives like the School Street Food Pantry cookware program. “We want to improve the lives of everyone we cover,” he said.
Improving the lives of students and removing barriers was also the focus of the collaborations on the instructional side of the new cookware program.
Bardwell and Dr. Jackie Lanier, associate professor in the Illinois State University Department of Health Sciences, began discussing the problem of students facing a lack of cookware and a lack of food prep knowledge following a thesis defense over a year ago.
Lanier and Kerri Calvert, coordinator in Health Promotion and Wellness at Illinois State, both worked with Bardwell to facilitate the creation of the instructional component of the program. Lanier and Calvert also served as liaisons between the University and the School Street Food Pantry, having both served on the School Street Food Pantry Board.
Illinois State students also collaborated in the creation of the instructional videos. Sarah Vasilopoulos, an undergraduate student in the dietetics program and volunteer with the pantry, wrote one of the scripts. Joo Yee Lim, a graduate student and dietetic intern, wrote another script and assisted in a variety of other ways. Theater students were even hired to be actors in some of the videos.
The program also includes an important research component. Participating students will be asked to complete pre- and post-program surveys. According to Bardwell, the main objective of the research is to examine how informational videos and access to cooking tools impacts student’s confidence in cooking and basic nutrition knowledge.
“We hope to include both undergraduate and graduate students into the research side of the project, as well as to demonstrate how research informs practice and can have valuable, tangible outcomes,” said Bardwell.
The research findings will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals for possible publication, but they will also be instrumental in applying for future grant funding to continue the cookware program.
“Moving forward, I hope that we can find ways to continue to improve student’s confidence in cooking healthy meals,” said Bardwell, “and I would really love to see these kitchen cookware starter packs become a regular occurrence. I would also love to see a continued collaboration towards educating students on how to use the cookware tools and nutrition/cooking knowledge, and providing food insecure students with the tools they need to be successful.”
The cookware package students will receive includes a chef’s knife, cutting boards, non-stick skillet, saucepan, baking sheet, measuring cups, measuring spoons, liquid measurer, wooden spoon, potholder, thermometer, can opener, and a Molina apron.
Applications will open in the coming weeks for students interested in participating in the program. The program will be able to accommodate up to 36 students this fall. Information will be sent out by the School Street Food Pantry to students currently visiting the pantry.