KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Feeding students isn't just a job for Rob Powers; it's a passion. A sous chef in the Bernhard Center, he's been whipping up culinary creations at Western Michigan University for 12 years now.
"I love when I hear how appreciative the students are for the food that we make for them," he says. "Some students are away from home for the first time, and to be able to give them three hearty meals a day is comforting to me."
A new partnership allows him to extend that passion beyond the current service areas. WMU Dining Services is teaming up with the Invisible Need Project to give students struggling with food insecurity new freshly prepared meal options.
"Dining Services supports student success, and food insecurity interferes with our students' best opportunity to succeed," says Judy Gipper, director of Dining Services.
"There are so many students who are choosing books over meals," continues Kimberly Johnson, assistant Dining Services manager. "We are excited to be part of a program that assists students in their wellness and well-being by providing nutritious meals for Invisible Need."
At the end of service each day, Powers takes excess food—when it's available—that's been prepared and packages it in individual servings to be stored in the freezer. In early February, Dining Services began weekly deliveries of those meals to the Invisible Need food pantry.
Quality is top of mind for the chef, who's been testing out which meals are the best candidates for this program. So far, he's found about 10 menu items that work best for freezing and reheating, ranging from lasagna and beef stew to chicken tikka masala.
In addition to feeding students in need, the new initiative also helps cut down on waste—something nutrition specialist Emily Hazel says is important not just to Dining Services, but to students as well.
"I had a lot of people contact me saying that we should do this. We did a customer satisfaction survey and there were quite a few comments asking what we were doing to reduce waste," she says. "This partnership is a wonderful solution where students are better fed and landfills contain less food waste."
Launched in 2014, the Invisible Need Project operates a food pantry on campus where WMU students can shop for food items for free as often as every two weeks—no questions asked.
"We know college is hard. It should be academically challenging. That should probably be, in an ideal world, the hardest part of college," says Kelly Reed, Invisible Need co-chair. "Yet, we are seeing so many students who struggle with food insecurity, housing insecurity, unexpected costs."
The project relies heavily on volunteers, both in terms of food and monetary donations as well as staffing at the pantry. Created by some University employees who recognized a need, the pantry has grown in size and moved to the lower level of the Faunce Student Services building in fall 2018 to keep up with increasing demand.
"Our goal, when we talk about this, is that it is a holistic outreach—that we're trying to serve the whole student," says Karen Lamons, one of the founders of Invisible Need who currently serves as co-chair. "How do we serve the student as a human? What are their needs to keep them here and be successful?"
Students who have used the pantry say it's made a huge difference in their WMU experience.
"For me, the relief that the food pantry has provided … greatly benefited my emotional/mental health, as well as my performance in class," says Jeffrey Wetherford III, a fifth-year instrumental music education major.
"I've had students tell me that this saved their life," says Joshua Conley, graduate assistant for the program. "I've had students tell me that they hadn't eaten in days, they didn't know what they were going to do, and a friend told them about this."
The difference the program makes, says Lamons, is evident at the end of each semester.
"One of the best things is I can see who's graduating, and I can see who used the pantry, and I know that what we did made a difference for them," she says. "There's a connection between them going out into the world and being successful, and we were able to help them get to that point. And I love that."
The Invisible Need Project also helps foster a culture of giving within the campus community.
"We had a volunteer say that he knew wherever he went in the world, that being part of the community and volunteering in some way would always be part of it because of his experiences with Invisible Need," says Lamons.
"We would hope that's the case for all graduates—that part of leaving Western is that there's this desire to serve," says Reed.
Since it began, thousands of students have used the pantry's services—and demand continues to increase. But, Reed says, a recent survey by a Lee Honors College student found that many students still aren't utilizing the resources because they feel someone else needs it more than them.
Lamons says she encountered that firsthand when talking with a student who'd volunteered to help at the pantry and realizing he was struggling to pay his own bills and help his mother out.
"This is a kid I've known since he was about 8 or 9. My husband coached him. And he's here to volunteer for the food pantry and says he hasn't eaten in three days, but he doesn't think he needs help as much as other people," says Lamons.
"Everybody thinks that we're helping someone else—another person, another part of the population. That 'it doesn't happen to people like me.' But that was my circle. That could have been my son in the elevator saying that. And I still think about that moment all the time, because I was helping 'other people' until that day."
In addition to the food pantry, Invisible Need also operates the Student Emergency Relief Fund, which provides financial assistance to students with immediate, unexpected needs, and helps with the Staufer Emergency Health Fund, which covers unforeseen medical expenses.
"We view ourselves as mission critical. Students cannot retain if they are not fed and housed and clothed," Reed says. "If you are a Western student, (our goal is that) you don't have unmet basic needs, period."
The program depends on the support of WMU faculty, staff, students and the community. For more information about Invisible Need and to find ways to donate, visit the project online.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.