PROVIDENCE – The 2012 Status Report on Hunger indicates that a growing number of Rhode Island families are experiencing hunger, a problem that two Providence College students are determined to do something about.
According to the report, issued by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, 24 percent of the Ocean State’s households receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) assistance.
The food bank’s member agencies, which includes meal kitchens and food pantries, feed more than 66,000 individuals every month.
An annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reported that 15.5 percent of Rhode Island households experienced food insecurity — limited access to an adequate supply of food — during the last year. Rhode Island has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England.
Providence College juniors David O’Connor and Nicholas Canessa are helping to stamp out hunger in the community using surplus food from a college dining hall to feed homeless and other less fortunate guests who regularly dine at a local soup kitchen.
O’Connor and Canessa founded Friar Food Rescue earlier this semester after learning about the Food Recovery Network, a national organization comprised of college and university students who fight food waste and hunger by recovering perishable food from their campuses and local restaurants and then distributing it to meal sites to feed those less fortunate.
The volunteers, who are members of the college’s student congress, are concerned with the growing problem of hunger in the United States.
O’Connor, a native of Franklin Square, N.Y., regularly volunteers at local food assistance programs such as Breadlines, which serves hot meals and sandwiches to the homeless in downtown Providence.
That experience led O’Connor to wonder how trays of unopened, leftover food he saw in the college cafeteria most nights could benefit those less fortunate.
He urged Canessa, a resident of Wall, N.J., who serves as the student government’s liaison with the college’s dining services, to inquire about food waste on campus and how Providence College might help alleviate food insecurity in the community.
The students approached Stuart Gerhardt, general manager for dining services, who embraced the students’ suggestion to donate unused food to McAuley House, a meal site and hospitality ministry located in South Providence.
Gerhardt, who is employed by Sodexo Inc., which is contracted by the college to provide dining services, added that the surplus food is sometimes the result of overproduction. The entrees and desserts are carefully labeled and stored according to stringent health department guidelines before they are sent to the meal kitchen.
During the past seven weeks, the Friar Food Rescue has donated more than 700 lbs. of food to McAuley House, including entrees such as baked ziti, macaroni and cheese, baked chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, and a variety of desserts. The food is delivered to McAuley House every Friday morning and is stored in the facility’s large walk-in freezer.
According to St. Chretienne Sister Julie Tremblay, kitchen manager at McAuley House, the food comes at a time when the lunch program is struggling to feed an increased number of low income and homeless individuals who depend on the facility to receive a nutritious lunch.
McAuley House serves more than 300 lunches daily Monday through Friday and on the last Saturday of every month. Sister Tremblay added that the number of lunchtime guests has increased during the last six months.
“Prepared food is a big help,” Sister Tremblay acknowledged. “We don’t get many donations like this.”
Canessa emphasized that he’s received a great deal of positive feedback from McAuley House staff who report the guests enjoy the variety of delicious entrees delivered from the college.
“I could not imagine not doing this,” Canessa said, adding that he and O’Connor have already secured a volunteer team to continue the program next semester while they study abroad. The students are encouraging underclassmen to volunteer so the food ministry will continue to flourish for years to come.
“In the future, we don’t want to be seen as just a van that comes and drops off food,” O’Connor said, adding that he hopes the Friar Food Rescue will expand to allow volunteers to serve McAuley House guests and assist in the variety of programs the center offers, such as art classes.