Sep. 16—MANKATO — Sorry, folks. Kitchen's closed.
Due to decreasing student involvement and internal discussions over how to best address the issue of hunger, Minnesota State University's Campus Kitchen program — which was founded in 2005 and served meals to thousands of area residents — has been discontinued.
The program's last official day of operation was Aug. 18. The program's last meal was served Aug. 17.
Originating in Washington, D.C., and replicated on college campuses across the country, Campus Kitchen was an innovative approach to solving community hunger problems.
Initially the local program was in Gage Residence Hall. Volunteers would take prepared but unserved campus dining service food and repackage it for redistribution. The food was then sent to various agencies that work with the homeless and hungry. Eventually they began accepting donations and rescuing food from area restaurants.
David Jones, MSU vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, said the number of students signing up to volunteer had been dropping over the past few years.
"That probably drove the decision more than anything," Jones said.
The program's end coincided with Karen Anderson's retirement. She had overseen Campus Kitchen since 2014. Her retirement — as well as a leadership change at Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry where the program was housed for the past decade — prompted a reevaluation and subsequent elimination of the program, Jones said.
Other than Anderson's salary, Campus Kitchen wasn't a costly program. The program's budget was about $23,000, all of which came from the MSU Foundation as part of an annual donor campaign. Those funds were used to pay rent to Crossroads and to purchase kitchen equipment. The university also had secured grants in the past to cover equipment. Students and community partners who helped collect and package food were volunteers.
The program, started with a $67,000 grant to cover equipment and a part-time employee, has evolved quite a bit. In the last few years, Jones said the majority of the food collected came from community partners such as Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Chipotle, Insomnia Cookies, Sodexo, Panera, Dickies BBQ, South MN Food Recovery Project, and others. In situations where donated or recovered food didn't equate to a healthy meal, they would purchase additional food.
Jones said the majority of the food was distributed to low-income families and children and service agencies throughout Greater Mankato including The REACH, ECHO Food Shelf, Campus Cupboard, BackPack Food Program, Loaves and Fishes, Mankato Youth Place, Holy Grounds, and Open Door Health Clinic. He said a limited amount of food was available to MSU students on a first-come, first-served basis.
While Campus Kitchen is gone, another program to fight hunger and provide service-learning opportunities has been growing and having a big impact on students. The Maverick Food Pantry stocks both perishable and non-perishable goods and is available to any student in need.
"We opened that up in the first year of the pandemic," Jones said. "It serves hundreds of students every week. It's an incredible resource and we've been able to partner with some of the local food providers."
Kelly Meier, assistant vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, was instrumental in launching MSU's Campus Kitchen program. She's also a leader in the new Maverick Food Pantry. She's seen MSU's food insecurity initiatives from both sides.
"Campus Kitchen was a really positive thing that MSU and donors invested in. I'm sad to see it go, but I also know that there's an evolution that occurs. We have the Maverick Food Pantry now, and that's not only contributing to the two-thirds of our students that are food insecure, but it's also serving as a volunteer opportunity for students and faculty and staff to get engaged."
Meier said Maverick Food Pantry doesn't replace Campus Kitchen; their missions were different. But Meier said she's proud of MSU's continued efforts to address social issues through community service and engagement.
"Campuses go through evolutions, and there are always opportunities to do more," Meier said. "We're not a campus that shies away from that. We innovate. And I always look at a door closing as another door opening."
Meier said the Maverick Food Pantry was launched as a direct response to increasing numbers of students experiencing insecurity.
"We responded by opening a fully functional pantry," she said, "and it's saving students' lives. We have students telling us that they wouldn't be here if it weren't for the pantry."
As MSU's Campus Kitchen goes away, it's likely others across the country will as well.
On the website of D.C. Kitchen, this message was posted Aug. 30: "We're moving onto the next phase in fighting hunger and food waste! The Campus Kitchens Project HQ is wrapping up operations and we're encouraging all of our chapters to join up with the largest student-led movement to end food waste and hunger: the Food Recovery Network. To learn more, visit foodrecoverynetwork.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org."