Because so many students at the University are committed to social action in foreign countries, many often overlook that people in our local community are struggling on a regular basis. However, Housing and Hunger, a student group on campus, has been trying to assist in reducing the level of poverty in Middletown for several years, and this fall the club has found even more ways of achieving its goals.
Although Housing and Hunger began as Habitat for Humanity over 10 years ago, the club has since expanded to include three other programs, each of which is run by two club members. Anike Arni ’13 facilitates everything behind the scenes as the leader of the entire Housing and Hunger club. Although she will take more of a backseat role this year than she has previously, she played an instrumental role in the decision to have co-leaders for each subgroup.
This fall, Marissa Schnitman ’14 and Alexa Crawford ’15 became the co-coordinators of the cooking classes held at Amazing Grace Food Pantry. The program was created three years ago, but this is the first year that it is officially offered through the University’s Office of Community Service, which will allow it to meet more regularly than in past years.
“We’re hoping that one Saturday a month we can get a group of Wesleyan students together to host a cooking class where we use ingredients at the food pantry to create a healthy recipe,” Schnitman said. “The program is designed to encourage shoppers of the food pantry to use what they buy in diverse ways because it can seem limiting to pick up the same ingredients every week or every month.”
Anyone from the Middletown and University communities can participate in the classes, which take place while the pantry is open so that shoppers can drop into the class whenever they want. After each session, food pantry shoppers get to take home a bag of the ingredients and a copy of the recipe. University students may get to take home ingredients if there are extras.
“It’s a great way to meet local residents and interact with them,” said Crawford, who has volunteered much of her time at soup kitchens and food pantries at her home in New York and was always frustrated by the impersonality of her work.
The group had its first cooking class on Oct. 6, and with the help of Lizzie Williams ’13, Matt Donahue ’14, Savannah Morehouse ’16, Songyi Wang ’16, and Marisa Guerrero ’15, the participants made vegetarian chili from rice, tomato sauce, canned vegetables, beans, and spices found at the pantry. Although they say the class was a lot of fun, Crawford and Schnitman admit that they were hoping for a greater turnout of Middletown residents.
“Our main goal for this year is to publicize the program as much as possible,” Schnitman said. “We need to find more ways to reach the shoppers and encourage them to bring their friends and family.”
Bread Salvage is another Housing and Hunger program that aims to combat food insecurities in Middletown, but it does so in a much more direct way.
“Simply put, our goal is to give bread to kids,” said Chloe Holden ’15, a co-coordinator of the program.
Bread Salvage started several years ago when a Middletown mother realized the degree to which hunger afflicted her community. She got in touch with the Freihofer’s Bakery, which has its outlet in Cromwell, and began picking up the extra loaves of bread that would otherwise go to waste. She then delivered the bread to local elementary schools, but after realizing that the job was too much for her to do alone, she contacted the University last fall to ask for help. Housing and Hunger immediately adopted the program and has been running it ever since.
Twice a week, a subset of the nine-volunteer group drives to Freihofer’s Bakery Outlet, loads the leftover loaves of bread into crates, and drives them to either Snow or Macdonough elementary schools, both of which are right in Middletown. The bread is then distributed to the students, who bring it home to their families. The volunteers are not able to give the bread to children personally, but Holden and her co-coordinator Jamie Hall ’15 are currently talking to the school principals to see if they can work out a way to do that. Despite this drawback, Hall believes the program is a valuable way to interact with the Middletown community.
“Bread Salvage definitely makes you feel more like a Middletown citizen because you can leave the Wesleyan campus and interact with some of the workers at Freihofer and some of the staff members and kids at the schools,” Hall said.
Over the course of the year, Holden and Hall want to make sure the program runs as smoothly as possible, and they hope to expand to new schools in the spring.
Food Rescue is another program that aims to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste in Middletown, but it targets the food that students at the University waste themselves.
Nearly every night of the week, the volunteers pick up leftover food from Summerfields, Pi Café, and Usdan and deliver it to Eddy Shelter, a homeless shelter and halfway house located about five minutes away from campus. Starting last year, the volunteers also began preparing a meal at least once a semester to eat with the shelter’s residents.
“Hunger is a very pervasive, but often invisible, issue [in Middletown] and it is one that affects 1 in 5 children in Connecticut,” wrote Rebecca Rubenstein ’15 in an email to The Argus. “As Wesleyan students, we have access to resources that can help address this serious problem, and as Middletown residents, we have the obligation to contribute and give-back what we can to our community.”
This year, Rubenstein and her co-coordinator Sydney Hausman-Cohen ’13 want to make the program more efficient, to raise awareness about hunger and homelessness at Wesleyan, and to expand Food Rescue to other Middletown establishments, such as WesWings and Main Street restaurants.
“We’re also planning on having a community dinner, and hope that we can get program houses and social organizations [on campus] like fraternities and sororities to contribute to the meal and hopefully join us for the meal at the shelter as well,” Rubenstein wrote.
Although Housing and Hunger added three new programs, the club hasn’t lost touch with its roots. Thanks to in-office coordinator Brittany Benham ’15 (who is in charge of all the forms and major decisions) and out-of-office coordinator Guerrero (who helps Benham whenever possible), the University’s Habitat for Humanity has expanded significantly.
Last year, the program’s volunteers didn’t have the opportunity to work on local construction sites, so most of their energy went into raising awareness on campus. This year, however, Benham will be sending students out every weekend to do small builds in neighboring regions.
“The Middlesex Habitat for Humanity has implemented a new program called a Brush with Kindness, [in which] they do fix-ups on houses in the community such as fixing busted windows or leaking roofs, or doing kitchen remodels,” Benham said. “Those builds occur every Friday and Saturday, so Wesleyan students can regularly help out on homes that are already in the possession of Middlesex residents.”
One thing that hasn’t changed since last year is that Habitat for Humanity will spend spring break working on builds in a different state. Last year, seven students went to Lexington, Va., to help the Rockridge County Habitat for Humanity build a house from scratch.
“They started with just the land and then built up from there,” Benham said. “We put in the flooring, which was really cool because it was something that people actually saw. That was the most profound thing about it. We were doing work that the homeowners were going to see every single day.”
Benham explained that the group is still figuring out where it will go this spring.
“For me, the best part of Habitat for Humanity is knowing that even the most menial jobs that we’re doing on a build are all extremely important to the making of the house,” Benham said. “Each nail is just as important as the rest. For example, we laid a drainpipe last spring. Obviously you can’t see that because the driveway covers it up, but it’s going to be extremely important for the functioning and maintenance of the house. Everything I do will be life-changing for the people who are going to live there because we are giving them a stable home.”
What Benham really wants to drive home is that all University students can make a change in Middletown. Students don’t need to have any prior skill with construction because the instructors will take them through safety precautions and teach then how to use every tool.
“Really all you need is enthusiasm,” she said.