Just a few weeks after the official opening of Hands to Help’s brand new community kitchen this fall, Merrimack College students have already prepared hundreds of meals for those in need in Lawrence, MA.
Kyla Stern ’24, Haleigh Teixeira ’24, Wil Hingston ’24 and Jillian Corrdiori ’24 have spent Wednesdays this semester at the kitchen as part of a community nutrition course taught by Eleanor Shonkoff, associate clinical professor.
“Out of the four of us we each get handed a different task,” said Hingston during a recent preparation of a pork dish. “Jill and Haley did the meat for the dinner, Kyla has been doing the vegetables and I’ve been doing the rice.”
The students have prepared traditional Dominican meals such as Mangu, a mashed plantain dish, and Morir Soñando, a beverage made of milk and squeezed lemon juice.
“Providing culturally appropriate food is great because the community recognizes it and it builds better connections with us when they see that we’re willing to go to that extent,” explained Hands to Help Executive Director Rosana Urbaez ’16. “Sometimes the food is even new to the students and we always like to challenge them.”
The kitchen is an enhancement of Merrimack and Hands to Help’s Food Recovery Network chapter, a partnership that began during the COVID-19 pandemic when the light was shown more brightly on food insecurities, especially in communities such as Lawrence. According to the Massachusetts Public Health Association, Lawrence has the sixth-largest grocery store gap in the state with only one major supermarket.
“It was during lockdown that President Hopey said, ‘Let’s get everybody together and let’s talk about food work,’” said Urbaez. “We really got together to talk about the idea of starting a kitchen and what that could be, and initially it really was about recovering food.”
Food Recovery Network student volunteers are tasked with collecting unused nonperishable food for those in need around Lawrence and on Merrimack’s campus. Sources include Sodexo, the company that oversees dining on campus, and the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.
Volunteers use the food to create meals and hand-deliver them to local community organizations such as Si Se Pude, the Lawrence Community Fridge and Top-Notch Scholars. Meals are also provided to Merrimack students in need at various locations around campus.
Vivian Villaman ’21, Hands to Help’s director of community outreach and operations, was hired to oversee operations and help the chapter grow.
“All of our student volunteers are mainly nutrition majors or are taking a course in community nutrition,” she explained. “We try to put into practice the theories that they are learning.”
In addition to helping the people of Lawrence, Urbaez believes the Food Recovery Network is a vital service for the students.
“It works in both ways,” she said. “I think our students are learning so much about different walks of life. In turn, the community is getting services that they’ve shared with us that they needed.”