Hunger is no game

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“If it smells funky, don’t eat it,” advised Fort Lewis College senior English major Ryan Meer, who volunteered his chef skills to the Cooking Matters program. Meer engaged students with humor while teaching them how to use fresh ingredients and seasonings to make a nutritious and affordable meal of vegetable stew, hummus and pita bread.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Locals struggling with how to stretch a dollar often are heard saying, “You can’t eat the scenery.”

But hungry low-income students at Fort Lewis College have much more palatable options thanks to a collaboration of fellow students, chefs, nutritionists and food producers.

All are working together under various federal grants and with resources provided by FLC’s Program for Academic Achievement, the Grub Hub food bank and the Native American and Environmental Centers to combat student hunger through education.

Last month, a group of students were treated to a “taste” of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters, a national program that teaches families the nuts and bolts about how to eat healthfully on a budget.

Volunteer chef Ryan Meer, a culinary school graduate and current FLC senior, and exercise physiology and nutrition student Lauren Turner packed six weeks of nutrition and food preparation hints into a three-hour, high-energy, student-prepared meal under the direction of Meer.

Through interactive, in-kitchen exercises, students learned how to select nutritious and low-cost ingredients such as whole foods and prepare them in ways that provide the best nourishment possible.

Rachel Landis, interim director of the FLC Environmental Center, and program coordinator Erin Jolley of Colorado Cooking Matters created the one-night mini-course to gauge student interest in the full program.

Based on the enthusiastic response, the full six-week Cooking Matters course will be offered in February or March, said Jolley, who spearheads the curriculum offered to communities in Southwest Colorado.

“We’re here to help students become civic-minded, socially and ecologically responsible citizens,” Landis said. “Food (selection) is one aspect over which we have a lot of personal control. We can make a large social and environmental impact through personal choice.”

One obstacle to eating well is the lack of knowledge about what to do with unfamiliar whole foods, Landis said. The Cooking Matters class prepared a hearty vegetable stew served with homemade pita bread and hummus.

“You can make these things at home, and you do not need a food processor,” Turner said. The nutritious and economical meal combined potatoes, carrots and chard from the FLC Environmental Center’s student-managed, campus vegetable garden with heirloom Delicata squash, garlic and onions donated by the Twin Buttes community.

Both Meer and Turner interjected nutritional information, including lesser-known facts about the anti-inflammatory and satiating benefits of many of the raw ingredients.

To educate the group about making nutritious beverage choices, Turner passed soda cans and bottles around the table, challenging students to calculate the grams of sugar in every serving.

While emphasizing kitchen safety and hygiene, Meer entertained the class with garlic-peeling tricks, secrets to seasoning soup stock, useful knife skills and bread-baking basics.

Space for the class was provided by FLC’s Native American Center and El Centro, the center for Hispanic culture, in the well-equipped kitchen the two groups share in the Student Union building.

Native American Center academic adviser Joey Dell, a graduate of FLC, became involved with Cooking Matters because students expressed an interest in good nutrition on a budget.

“We thought it would be a great idea to host a student-inspired class on campus,” Dell said.

The Native American Center, which offers walk-in academic advisement, a textbook loan program, tutorial help and a computer lab, helps about 25 students a semester with non-perishable, emergency food needs.

The need for emergency food increases at the end of the semester, Dell said. The grant-run program purchases about 90 percent of its food from Care and Share, a Feeding America clearinghouse for food distribution and food wholesaler, but gets donations from Durango’s Manna Soup Kitchen, too.

Because not every FLC student can afford to purchase a campus meal plan, and students who are referred to the Durango Food Bank and Manna Soup Kitchen often don’t have access to transportation to get there, FLC offers two other on-campus programs to combat hunger.

The Grub Hub is a food bank run by FLC’s Sociology Club and open to all FLC students.

David Wells, who along with fellow intern Lacey Begay, staffs the Thursday afternoon food-distribution program, said donations to the food bank vary and are unpredictable. In late November, students received packages of seasonal vegetables, such as yams, along with bread, yogurt and pretzels.

FLC’s Program for Academic Advancement also recognizes the need for quick food during emergencies. The grant-run program, which provides academic support and advisement, aims to increase retention rates of low-income students and students with disabilities.

Optimal learning doesn’t happen on an empty stomach, said PAA Director Jenn Wagnon. The PAA offers non-perishable food items such as granola bars, ready-to-eat lunches that can be heated in their own containers, oatmeal, Ramen noodles and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

PAA adviser Emma Salazar said it’s a misconception that college students don’t have to worry about their finances. In addition to food, the program also provides a small supply of personal items such as deodorant, toothpaste, sample-sized shampoo and soap to students in need.

Although the various organizations serve different populations in accord with the grants that fund them, they informally collaborate on projects such as Cooking Matters because they share a common belief that no student should go hungry.

“People do not realize that for every entitled college student, there’s a struggling student,” Dell said.

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