Feeding the Hungry

One-sixth of the world's population—more than 1 billion people—goes hungry. At the same time, studies indicate that up to half of the food produced and prepared in the United States eventually goes to waste.

At the Harvest Soup Kitchen in Muncie, Indiana, Lois Altman and her small cadre of culinary volunteers are actively seeking solutions to both problems while providing meals to as many as 125 people a day, six days a week.

As a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, Altman is a chef specializing in quantity food production. Her students make all of the food served in the Allegre Restaurant on campus. Since her mother passed away in 2006, she also has given her time, talent, and energy to the Harvest Kitchen.

"When my mother was still living, I'd spend mornings going down to Indianapolis and back, spending time with her. Now I just use those same hours and come here," says Altman, who on Fridays can begin cooking as early as 7:30 a.m. for lunch starting at 10:30. Depending on the time of year and the weather, a few expectant diners may arrive by 9. On Fridays, the kitchen serves a full meal, not just soup.

"And it's not just the down-and-outers," Altman observes, "but people who look just like you and I do. They just don't have a job today, or they had to make that car payment today, or they're getting only part-time work. We see families. Anybody can walk through that door, and we're here to serve them."

To do that, the cooks at Harvest Kitchen need to be light on their feet, not only maneuvering around the ovens, stovetops, refrigerators, prep tables, and sinks, but also dealing with the inevitable, last-minute changes of menu that occur when what's to eat depends so much upon what's available. Food retailers, restaurants, and other meal preparers in the community, including Ball State Dining regularly contribute excess foodstuffs to the kitchen and Second Harvest Food Bank.

On this day, Altman has come with cheese donated by Ball State and intending to make macaroni and cheese. Except, instead of finding the expected bags of macaroni noodles, this morning she's greeted by a hundred potatoes.

No problem. In the how-can-we-be-creative-and-use-stuff entrepreneurial spirit the university strives to imbue in students through immersive learning, Altman and her colleagues quickly decide they'll split the potatoes open, melt on some of the cheese, and serve them with sour cream the kitchen received earlier from Ball State as well as fresh chives from Altman's garden.

"So, today we're serving meat loaf and a really great baked potato," she beams, gratified as much by the team's effective collaboration as its result, providing another satisfying and sustaining meal for persons in need.

"It's very immersive because, well, they're standing right here beside me," says Altman. Or, occasionally, sitting in the corner feverishly taking notes.

"We go pretty fast around here," Altman adds, whirling as if on cue to check on a pan of sautéing carrots. "We wanted to try to codify things, so one semester, we had a student sit and take notes as we cooked. We'd just shout things out, and she'd write it all down."

Among other results of Altman's relationship with Harvest Kitchen is the Harvest Handbook: A Soup Kitchen's Guide to Maximizing Resources. The booklet, funded by a grant from Indiana Campus Compact, is distributed free and made available online so that other organizations involved in preparing large meals on a budget or with donated goods can be inspired to renewed "creativity and a willingness to experiment that can result in both satisfying and tasty food."

Altman now is working on a new grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. to identify the 20 most underused items given away at food pantries and devise new recipes for them featuring a few basic ingredients and easy to follow directions. "Very simple and as nutritious as possible," she explains. The goal, ultimately, is to distribute the recipes along with the food, easing indecision over what to do with an unusual item. 

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"It's not just the down-and-outers, but people who look just like you and I do...anybody can walk through that door and we're here to serve them."

—Lois Altman, professor and volunteer