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Northwestern Food Services fights hunger, donating nearly 10,000 student-meals

The war on hunger is a never-ending battle. Add in a global pandemic and the crisis grows even more dire as thousands of people across the Chicago and Evanston area ask the question, “How will I feed my family?” Wildcats are stepping up to the plate, literally.

“We were surprised by the number of meals that were ordered but not picked up. We assumed it was due to all of the activity around move-in and realized this scenario could repeat all week,” said Stacey Brown, Northwestern’s Director of Dining.

Hot meals, untouched

During Northwestern’s Wildcat Wellness period, students were required to self-quarantine in their residence hall rooms. During this time, 2,400 residential students — with a meal plan — were delivered lunch and dinner; that’s approximately 66,000 delivered meals over two weeks.  But unlike ordering take-out from your favorite neighborhood restaurant, hundreds of these boxed, hot meals were left unclaimed and untouched.

“Over five hundred meals were returned, and we knew that if this was going to continue, this would be a really big problem.  So, I put a call out to a bunch of non-profits around the city and people came together to start a massive food recovery effort,” said Sarah Levesque, the Sustainability Director for Compass Group, the company in charge of preparing meals for Northwestern dining halls.

Non-profits respond

Sixty non-profit organizations quickly responded to the urgent call. During the two-week Wildcat Wellness period, twice a day, dozens of volunteers collected the uneaten meals to deliver to those in need. Give-N-Kind, a non-profit started by Northwestern alumnus, Emily Petway (’02) helped coordinate the effort to recover meals that were not distributed.

“I am proud that [Northwestern] University has set such an example of social and environmental responsibility.” said Petway. “These are times like we have not seen before and to recognize how surplus [food] can be placed into an area of high need is making all of the difference for communities across Chicagoland.”

“What you didn’t realize when you started this was these meals are helping so many homes and shelters,” said Jiwon McCartney with Fight 2 Feed. “Because they are already prefabbed, and good to go square meals with the vegetables and proteins, we don’t have to manage it. We take it from point A to point B. Heat and go.” 

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 provides meals to 3,000 low-income families. 

“To be able to not waste food and to get this out to people is a great idea. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us and especially since people need it,” said Ellen Urquiaga, the family engagement facilitator. District 65 is splitting the food it recovers from Northwestern with a partnering organization, Evanston Latinos, to help reach Latino families, some of whom have undocumented children attending school in District 65.

10,000 meals donated

Nearly 10,000 meals are expected to be donated by the time the Wildcat Wellness period ends on Jan. 17. Once normal meal services resume in dining halls across campus, unused food will still not go to waste. Campus Kitchen, the student-led volunteer organization, is currently on pause while students are self-quarantining.  When quarantine is over, the organization will continue to collect excess food to package and deliver to low-income Evanston residents for free.

“We are very happy with the quick action taking by NU Dining and our Compass partners,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier. “Their rapid response to this situation created a great benefit to the community and helped so many people impacted by this pandemic.”

Dave Davis, Northwestern's executive director of neighborhood and community relations, said the initiative was another way for the University to support the community, especially in a time of increased need.

"We humbly extend the University's resources to help our neighbors make it through these challenging times," Davis said. "We take pride in creating partnerships that will combat food insecurity in Evanston for as long as there are people in Evanston who go to bed hungry each night."

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