It Takes A Village
By: Jacob Batte
You cannot always see hunger. You cannot always see hunger. It could be an elderly couple sitting at the end of the pew in church. It could be a family playing at the park. It could be a student walking next to you in the Quad. But in Louisiana, an estimated 1 in 6 households struggle to put food on the table, according to the USDA. That’s why faculty and staff across campus are championing efforts to address hunger in our community.
This is a systemic issue,” says Dr. Michele Caruso, vice president for student affairs. “We have to look at the bigger picture of how we take care of each other as human beings, and why anyone in society would have to deal with hunger. How do we as a university help to fill in those gaps?”
Nicholls CAN has helped address the need in the community for close to a decade. Jean Donegan (BA ’73), interim liberal arts dean, had seen food drives on campus but only at the department level. Inspired by the stories of hunger her priest had shared, she approached then-president Dr. Stephen Hulbert to discuss a university-wide food drive. He supported the idea, and the art department took the lead.
For their first attempt, their goal was one can per person, or about 6,500. They collected more than 7,000. They held the food drive again the following semester and repeated the results.
“It really started growing after that,” she says. “We saw that people were competitive with it, and the competition has pushed people to get involved.”
When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges visited Nicholls campus, they mentioned the food drive in their report. Donegan says it was the effort of the entire campus that caught their attention.
“The whole university came together to help the community,” she says.
Donegan says one of the older volunteers at a food bank in Houma would hug them every year as they delivered the donations. “You don’t know the good you’re doing,” he would tell them.
And it is more than just food. They also collect items necessary for hygiene, such as deodorant, tooth brushes, soaps and other resources that cannot be bought with food stamps.
They get the campus involved by reaching out through the faculty and creating competitions. Student organizations compete in CAN Wars, where they participate in activities using the cans they have collected.
Today, donations from the food drive are distributed to six Bayou Region food banks, and Mom’s Pantry on campus.
Nicholls CAN is an annual event, but there is more than one way to get involved.
Donate to Mom’s Pantry. Donate to your local food bank. And donate to Nicholls CAN. And donate more than just canned food.
“With a monetary contribution, many of these places can go to Sam’s Club where the buying power is greater than a few cans of creamed corn,” Michael Williams says.
Food insecurity is more than just being hungry. It is not having consistent access to nutritionally necessary foods.
Data from Feeding America indicates that the Bayou Region is facing a hunger crisis. They estimate a 16.8 percent food insecurity rate in Assumption Parish, 16.5 percent in St. Mary, 15.9 percent in Terrebonne, 14.9 percent in St. John, 14.7 percent in St. James, 13.7 percent in Lafourche and 13.4 percent in Jefferson. All of which are higher than the nationwide average of 11.5 percent
“It’s part of our overall responsibility as a university, as well as human beings, to take care of our people.” – Dr. Michelle Caruso
Additionally, Louisiana ranks among the worst nationally with 1 in 4 children and seniors facing food insecurity.
Every day, Williams would see his neighbor, Donald, across the street. He was a disabled veteran who needed a cane to walk. Donald didn’t have the money to care for himself. So, Williams and his wife began to buy him food and take him to the food bank. Williams, an associate professor of sculpture, thinks about his neighbor every year when he organizes the Nicholls Can food drive.
“If you don’t have enough money to feed yourself, you don’t have enough to be clean or to get new clothes, then there is a degradation, especially with the elderly if they can’t afford to fend for themselves,” he says.
But it’s more than just families and seniors. More than one-third of college students nationwide experience hunger and lack stable housing, according to a 2018 study.
Dr. Caruso says she was surprised when she saw the results of an internal assessment of hunger needs on the Nicholls campus.
“We grow up thinking that there are hungry people, but they’re in other countries or on street corners. But it’s all around us,” she says. “It might be someone walking next to you in the quad who hasn’t eaten in two days and can’t focus on school. That realization really hits home.”
Economic challenges in the Bayou Region mean that about 60 percent of Nicholls students are first-generation or Pell-eligible. Those factors are highly correlated to food insecurity and Dr. Caruso says it can make addressing those needs a challenging but worthwhile cause.
“It’s part of our overall responsibility as a university, as well as human beings, to take care of our people,” Dr. Caruso says.
Shortly after the internal assessment was complete, local nonprofit Mom’s Pantry contacted Nicholls about establishing a food pantry on campus. “We had the need and they had the resources,” Dr. Caruso says.
While Mom’s Pantry focuses on addressing student hunger when they’re at home, Tillou’s Table focuses on hunger when they are on campus. The program was created out of a partnership between the university, Sodexo and the Student Government Association, and affords qualifying students hot fresh meals in Galliano Cafeteria.
Williams says he has known students who are food insecure. But they do not like talking about it, because they are afraid of what that says about them.
“They’re not going to tell me about it, because it’s taboo,” he says.
Those students who apply for the program are often too respectful to ask for what they actually need, Dr. Caruso says. They might apply for three meals a week when they really need 10.
“A student has to be vulnerable to apply, so you might expect some level of embarrassment, but they’re actually very humble,” she says.
Beyond the Pantry is an additional program that seeks to teach sustainable cooking skills and food literacy, taught by faculty in the dietetics program and the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute.
“It’s not only about how to cook for yourself, but how they can stretch their dollar and get more meals from this one cooking experience,” Dr. Caruso says.
Addressing food insecurity as a community begins with addressing the stigma around being hungry. To do that, it starts with education. Dr. Caruso says she hopes to make the student body more aware of and more comfortable with the programs offered on campus.
“It truly takes a village,” Dr. Caruso says. “It’s beautiful that we as a campus, as a microcosm of society, that we are that village and we are going to take care of our villagers.”
Students who get involved are in for an eye-opening experience, Donegan says.
“We don’t see every day how some people live, or the things they have to do to meet their needs,” she says. “When you experience that, it changes you. You begin to consider things other than yourself.”
But the most important step is the charitable one.
“Whenever we take on an issue, we want to think in terms of saving the world, but it starts with saving the people in our own backyard,” Dr. Caruso says. “Helping the person standing next to you can be just as profound. That’s how we save the world.”