By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — In late August, on the day at Minnesota State University when students returned to campus, the Campus Kitchen program left campus.
The program is still around, of course, rescuing unserved food from the school’s cafeteria and preparing it for distribution to the needy.
But it’s undergone a significant transformation in the last few months, triggered by the decommissioning of the venerable Gage towers residence halls. The Gage kitchen had been the practical home for the program, the place where student volunteers take rescued food and put it into individual serving containers. (Its offices remain in the Centennial Student Union.)
When Gage was emptied — it is scheduled for demolition sometime next year — it left Denise Billington-Just, the program’s coordinator, with the task of finding a new home.
It didn’t take her long.
One of the first places she inquired was Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry, a church right across the street from campus. The response was a warm one.
“You come in and you feel like you’re in a building full of life,” Billington-Just said.
She met with Rev. Tammy Dahlvang of Crossroads, who immediately showed interest.
“I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to be involved in the community, and what a great way to use our space,’” Dahlvang said.
The move was made in August. So now, instead of packaging meals at Gage, volunteers package those meals in the Crossroads kitchen.
The move has resulted in a few changes.
Because the space is smaller, they’re only able to package about half as many meals as they did at Gage. They’re doing about 115 meals per week, 35 of which go to the ECHO Food Shelf. At the program’s height, they were doing between 200 and 300. They’re also using fewer volunteers, although they had reduced student volunteer hours before the move.
If demand arises, Billington-Just said they’ll do what they have to do to feed people. They’d have to add another packing shift.
For now, Billington-Just and Dahlvang said they’re operating on a three-year plan, and both said they expect Campus Kitchen to be housed at Crossroads for the foreseeable future.
In addition to rescuing food from the university dining service, the program also collects food from area restaurants such as Red Lobster, Chipotle and Caribou Coffee. And Billington-Just said they’re always looking for more restaurants to add to their collection site list.
They’re also looking for volunteers from the public to fill in over the current break, which runs from mid-December to mid-January. Call 389-6076 to inquire about volunteering.