Growing food and community in a pandemic

Breakfast or textbooks? Dinner or rent? Even before COVID-19, food insecurity was rife on college campuses across America, leaving students with difficult choices to make. As the cost of living rises and college tuition plunges a generation of young people into debt, some students are opting to forego nutritious food to afford other basic needs.

The coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse. By heightening food insecurity in vulnerable communities and hindering our ability to break bread with friends and family, COVID-19 has changed the way we relate to our food.

The Sustainability Office at the University of Utah is quickly adapting its sustainable food initiatives to ensure that students have access to food and community, says Jessica Kemper, sustainable food initiatives manager for the Sustainability Office. “We’re trying to build community and put produce in peoples’ hands,” Kemper says. “The practicality of the work has shifted but not the goals or the mission of the work.”

To continue to meet those goals, past programs are shifting to allow students to continue to physically distance while also accessing fresh produce.

Avery Durham, a fourth-year GIS major and a student garden steward in Sustainability’s Edible Campus Gardens, explains that normally the gardens sell their produce at the weekly U Farmers Market, but with the market canceled this year, it will look a little different. “We’ve decided we’re giving away all of our produce,” Durham says.

On Sept. 9, Oct. 14 and Nov. 4, garden stewards will set up a stand outside of the Campus Store to give away freshly grown garden produce to the university community. These Produce Pickups will not only share food but will also share knowledge about where the food came from and how to prepare it. “We’re having these little recipes that we’re going to be giving away with all the produce,” Durham says. “Students can get the produce that they want, and then they’ll have this recipe that they can go and make.”

Elle-Rose Knudson, a garden steward and third-year mechanical engineering major, explains that the rest of the Edible Campus Gardens’ produce will be donated to the Feed U Pantry, which is located in the basement level of the A. Ray Olpin Union Building. “People having access to food is always an issue, of course, but specifically during the pandemic,” she says. “I felt really good about being part of something that allowed people to have access to food.”

In previous years, most of the gardens’ produce was sold at the U Farmers Market, with smaller amounts provided free at Produce Pickups. This year, however, “all of our produce will be going to the Feed U Pantry where anyone with a U Card can pick it up for free,” Knudson says. Director of the Feed U Pantry Emily Huang, a fourth-year biology student, describes the importance of the pantry to the campus community. “Even before the pandemic, food insecurity, especially in higher education, was very prevalent,” Huang says. “But with the pandemic going on we’ve definitely seen an increase in clients visiting the pantry.”

Huang encourages students, staff, and faculty to visit the Feed U Pantry, and hopes to destigmatize the act of utilizing campus food resources. “This really is a non-judgmental space, and we’re just here for students no matter how much help they need.”

The Sustainability Office also has opportunities for those who are missing the community element of sharing food. Campus student groups will host Zoom Cooking Hours, which create virtual opportunities to gather with friends and share a delicious meal. There will be five events this semester, and cooking kits stocked with a recipe and ingredients will be available at no cost at the Feed U Pantry.  Participants will meet virtually to learn a new recipe, cook, and eat together. The program is sponsored by Harmons.

“In the face of a pandemic, it’s a really good time to just take a breather and eat some good food,” Kemper reminds us. Fortunately, between the Feed U Pantry, Produce Pickups, and Zoom Cooking hours, it’s possible for the campus community to do just that.