As the school and work day started to wind down on Wednesday, K-State students flocked to the St. Isidore’s Catholic Church parking lot to pick up a free meal.
It’s a weekly event, but Wednesday’s menu included chicken pancit, a Filipino noodle dish; and aloo gobi, a vegetable-based Indian curry. It was the first week the Asian American Student Union worked with a program called Konza Student Table.
AASU typically hosts an annual Asian food sampling event as part of its heritage month programming, but COVID-19 precautions posed challenges.
Instead, leaders of that group contacted the Konza Student Table, a program that is a collaborative effort between the Farm and Food Council of Riley County and Manhattan, students in K-State’s Commercial Food Production Management class and St. Isidore’s Catholic Church to serve free to-go meals to K-State students and their families.
Konza Student Table has served more than 10,000 meals since it opened in early September. Vickie James, coordinator of the Farm and Food Council, said the council had been brainstorming ways to ensure food got into the hands of community members, and one of the community’s underserved populations is students.
According to 2017 data from Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network, about 17.5% of Riley County’s population experiences food insecurity, which is about 5 percentage points higher than the state average.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life.
James said with the transient nature of the area, which is home to college students and Fort Riley’s military community, it’s a challenge for some people to stay in one place long enough to build up income and stability.
James said as the council scouted locations for more food service sites, she got in touch with Father Gale Hammerschmidt of St. Isidore’s, who said the church supported the idea as it also had been looking for more opportunities to help people in need.
“It just became evident that the need was already here, and it escalated more during COVID,” James said. “... It just felt like this was what we needed to do, and we’ve just had such a positive response.”
Because the church had raised money to help with its remodeling, Hammerschmidt said they’ve been able to use a bit of those funds to help support the Konza Student Table program, and the church also helps provide volunteers.
“I love that (the partnership) expresses that St. Isidore’s is a part of the Manhattan and K-State family,” Father Drew Hoffman added. “... We want to be part of this team, this family, this university, this city, and so this is a way to be part of that community.”
James said since the program started late last year, pandemic protocols are all they’ve ever known, but she credited its various partners and donors for helping it run as smoothly as it has so far. Volunteers initially began by serving about 200 meals a week, and it has grown to about 500 meals a week.
Kelly Whitehair, a registered dietitian and assistant director of K-State’s dining support services who helps ensure the meals are nutritionally balanced, said the pandemic situation may have actually helped get the word out faster.
“I think we had more students as restaurants were closed at that point,” she said. “A lot of things were closed, so this was another one of those options for them when they didn’t have a lot of other options for meals.”
Ericka Bauer oversees the students in the hospitality management class that cooks the meals and helps come up with the weekly menus. The class also operates Lacy’s Fresh Fare and Catering restaurant in Justin Hall, but with business being a bit slow lately, the Konza Student Table meals help the students gain even more hands-on experience working in a kitchen and learning about the non-profit side of the field.
Bauer said quite a few of the student table customers are international students so when coming up with menus, she tries to make a wide variety of dishes they may be missing from home.
Both Bauer and Anthony Fink, Bauer’s graduate teaching assistant, said they both appreciate the idea that they and their students are fulfilling a need in the area. Ultimately, Bauer said she hopes that the student table will remain a permanent aspect of the hospitality management program, leaving a legacy that will benefit others.
“It’s students making food for students in need,” Bauer said. “I think that’s the awesome part about it because K-State can physically support itself. It’s just a matter of pulling those resources together and ... making a beautiful thing, which we have here.”
The Konza Student Table serves meals through a non-contact delivery drive through and walk-up service every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in the St. Isidore’s parking lot.
Its partnership with AASU will continue on April 21 when it serves Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, with rolls made by K-State’s Baking Science Club.