Captains Cooperative

Students attract scores of volunteers from across campus to launch food delivery program.

The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts has become central to the way we think about many things, from design to teambuilding; new products are even developed this way, through input and funding from future users. It’s synergy and collaboration that lead to efficiency, simplicity and shared reward.

The CNU Food Cooperative is working to adopt this notion by leading a big-tent effort that blurs lines on campus and draws seemingly disparate groups together to accomplish a single goal: feeding the hungry. They collect unserved food from CNU’s dining halls each night and deliver it to Peninsula Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in downtown Newport News. The group involves as many students, faculty and staff members from across campus as possible, all without establishing itself as an official organization. “The idea is for this to be an inclusive club,” says senior American studies major Brad Turner, one of the group’s leaders. “We’re not different from any of the other students who wondered what happened to our dining hall food. We’re just the ones who put together a framework.”

Since deliveries began last fall the co-op’s efforts have been coordinated by three students: Molly McMillen (’14), junior Chelsea Rubis and Turner, but the group has expanded to include more than 50 volunteers who pick up and deliver the food. McMillen, a math major from Virginia Beach, got the ball rolling after sharing her concerns about uneaten food with CNU’s administration. Executive Vice President Bill Brauer (’77) responded favorably, and McMillen worked with him to hammer out the logistics and required approvals. Turner led the effort to find a recipient for the donated food, while Rubis, who majors in biochemistry as part of CNU’s Pre-Med Scholars Program, joined the leadership team after serving as one of the most dedicated delivery volunteers.

According to Turner, the co-op’s biggest challenge was actually finding someone to take the food they wanted to donate. “There’s a lot of regulation for state or federal agencies as far as receiving donated food,” he says. The limiting factor for the co-op is that they are dealing with prepared food, which lacks any real shelf life, as opposed to canned or frozen food, which many more agencies would gladly accept. Turner, who previously worked with CNU’s Center for Community Engagement, had some knowledge of local human service agencies and called the Rescue Mission. “As a private agency, they don’t have as much paperwork to do,” says Turner. “They’ve been a great partner – a great starting place.”

Once the group had an agreement with CNU’s Dining Services and an eager client in the Rescue Mission, they set up an initial rotation of around a dozen students to cover deliveries. “We asked everyone to tell their friends and all the organizations they were part of,” says Turner. The cohort of volunteers grew so quickly that the group struggled to make arrangements and accommodate everyone. “It was shaky at first,” Turner says. “But we reached a point where there was a three-week stretch that I didn’t even do a delivery because we had other people, and that’s the way it should be,” he adds. “As word spreads, the responsibility is shared more and more by caring individuals and organizations on campus.”

With the notion of a shared endeavor toward a single objective as the driving force, the co-op quickly expanded and honed the group’s operation. “We’re set up to be a collaboration among a lot of different stakeholders,” Turner says. “We involve students, staff and an outside agency. We welcome anyone to work with us, and want this to become something that CNU students do — to be a part of our culture.” He adds that several student organizations have already pledged to deliver for a week at a time once operations resume this fall. Groups like Kappa Kappa Psi, a student service and leadership recognition society for music majors; the President’s Leadership Program; and Delta Upsilon fraternity, among others, have all made commitments. The co-op has also been in contact with the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils to facilitate more future involvement for CNU students in Greek life.

The volunteers meet each night at the dining halls just after closing. Dining Services staff members pack up the food in containers the co-op provides, and the volunteers load the food and drive to the Rescue Mission for delivery. According to the group’s statistics, an average nightly run during 2013-14 involved 15 disposable chafing pans, each capable of holding approximately four quarts of food — chicken, meatballs, vegetables, seafood, bread — whatever was served that night, and they made more than 100 deliveries to the Rescue Mission. “I would say 20 pounds a night is a conservative estimate,” Turner says. It’s a streamlined operation; the only overhead is the dishes needed to transport the food, and gas for the 13-mile round trip, and Turner is hopeful the expense of the pans will soon be a thing of the past. Through a network of donors, the Rescue Mission has stockpiled hundreds — enough for several weeks of deliveries — and the co-op is seeking funding to purchase re-usable containers, a stride that will make the enterprise more sustainable.

According to Alan DeFriese, Executive Superintendent at Peninsula Rescue Mission, each delivery feeds up to 50 nightly residents at the shelter. It may seem like an embarrassment of riches, but all three of the co-op’s leaders are quick to point out that they do not view CNU as wasting food or producing far more than students eat each night. “We would never fault CNU for being excessively wasteful,” Turner says. “For a facility that feeds thousands at dinner, having leftovers that can feed 40-50, I think that’s very good.”

The donated food has provided meals for many, and is a definite asset to the Rescue Mission’s bottom line. DeFriese says the program has saved his organization nearly $3,000 in food costs in the first few months of operation — money that can be used for other needs at the shelter. DeFriese credits McMillen, Rubis and Turner for their skill in planning the deliveries, which he sees as both seamless and selfless. “In the middle of all they could be doing, these students are making an effort, taking a lot of time, and no doubt some personal expense along the way, to reach out and help a group of men who will never know who they are and will never be able to repay them in any way,” he says.

The three student leaders are upbeat about the future of the program as it continues to grow and include other agencies or shelters. “We think the model we’ve set up with the Rescue Mission can be duplicated,” Turner says. “It’s very simple, and the savings are undeniable.” The group sees more opportunities to grow the program, from weekend deliveries to recovering unserved food at catered events on campus. They also plan to purchase scales to weigh the food they collect, which will enable them to calculate cost savings, improve reporting, and refine their own business plan and needs.

All three students point to their upbringing for inspiring them to serve the greater good in this way. McMillen recounts how she mentioned her concern about food waste to her parents, and they encouraged her to bring it to the administration’s attention. “I’ve always loved helping people,” McMillen says. “It’s what I want to be doing with my free time.” Rubis largely credits growing up in a home where nothing was wasted and CNU’s culture of service for empowering her to be a force for change on this issue. “I wanted to stand up for something,” she says.

For Turner, he joined to better accomplish CNU’s call that students serve others. “I saw the potential on campus to build bridges and do something that builds goodwill among staff, students and the outside community,” he says. “This has been an experiment in true cooperation.” Rubis echoes the bridge idea. “You could be volunteering with a complete stranger, and then the next day you see them around campus. It brings people closer together, and I really like that,” she says.

Senior CNU officials are fans, too. Brauer, who worked with McMillen at the outset to realize the program, has been impressed with the group’s work. “That’s the mark of a CNU student: putting into practice the qualities of leadership, service and civic engagement while carrying a rigorous class load and graduating on time,” he says. “I applaud the efforts of Molly and that of her colleagues. They are Captains for Life.”

McMillen and Turner were even able to work the Food Cooperative into their academic life at CNU as well. The program was the subject of McMillen’s senior seminar topic and the focus of a class Turner took for his minor in civic engagement and social entrepreneurship. He wrote a grant that doubles as the group’s strategic plan for next year, incorporating much of the change and expansion they hope to implement. McMillen’s project ran mathematical simulations of crowds at Regattas dining hall with an eye toward reducing waste by decreasing the amount of food prepared.

Although McMillen, Rubis and Turner are largely responsible for the impact the co-op has had on campus and in the community, all three are reluctant to take credit. “We only facilitate this,” says Turner. “Many hands make light work. It’s rewarding that we spearheaded it and tried to find a solution to what many of us thought was a dead end. All we needed to do was create the momentum, and everyone’s been on our side. It speaks to the power of community here.” The three, who did not know each other prior to their involvement with the co-op, have become fast friends and learned much about the leadership and teamwork it takes to organize the efforts of many to fulfill a common purpose.