Clare’s Cupboard has been operating in Veronica Hall at Alvernia University in Reading, Pa., for a while as a classic donation-based food pantry stocked with canned and dried goods for food-insecure students, but it took on an added dimension this September by adding prepared foods from excess production intended for the dining hall, thanks to a partnership between Alvernia and its campus dining services provider, Aladdin by Elior North America.
“The idea started with the Mission and Ministry team and Aladdin,” explains Food Service Director Matt Lykens. “Both parties wanted to eliminate food shrink on campus, so we decided to package and provide food for people in need that would typically go to waste in the dining hall.”
During normal semesters, there would be 10 to 12 portioned leftovers from a typical meal period, even with batch cooking, but now, rather than throwing these out, “we found a way to feed people rather than a landfill,” Lykens says. The dishes represent a range of traditional foods like mac and cheese, international fare such as Thai pork loins and curried chicken and healthy options.
“We try to offer vegetarian options and make sure each meal is properly labeled,” Lykens notes. “We try to make it a square meal with starch, vegetable and protein, so the meals at Clare’s Cupboard are different from your typical dried foods pantry.”
The coked food is cooled down immediately and packaged in containers within 24 hours. Work-study students from Mission and Ministry are tasked with picking them up bi-weekly from the dining hall and delivering them to Clare’s, where they are placed in the venue’s commercial freezer.
“We never use food that went out to the air of the cafeteria,” Lykens explains. Rather, it is all excess production that remained safely in the back of the house. “We cool each meal to below 71 degrees in two hours, then we have four hours to get it below 40 degrees,” he explains. “We then document and freeze immediately in containers.”
Each meal comes with instructions saying that it is to be stored in a freezer immediately and heated to 165°F before serving.
Clare’s Cupboard is a self-serve/grab-and-go food shelter generally open from noon to 5 p.m. weekdays, with some weekend hours. All students on campus are eligible to use it, with 10 to 15 generally using it on a regular basis, Lykens says, but “we can expect to see more usage during holiday closures since some students might not travel home due to COVID restrictions or even because this might be the only place of residence for students.”
Previously, some excess prepared food had been sent to a few area shelters the university has been partnering with, such as Hope Rescue Mission, Hannah’s Hope Ministries and Opportunity House.
Reaction on campus to the new program has been gratifying to his team, Lykens says.
“Our staff has spoken to faculty and staff [and] reviews are overwhelmingly positive as [the new prepared food component] adds to the typical dried good options” at Clare’s Cupboard, he offers. “We like that this is something that students can grab at any time, and it’s discreet so anyone that is in need of meals, they have access [while remaining] anonymous.”
The university and Aladdin are currently in the process of expanding the program to satellite campuses that the university serves.