Students' extra meal points can now feed Chicago's homeless. The new Bag Lunch Program, sponsored by the registered student organization The Giving Tree, allows University of Chicago students to use spare points from their meal plan to provide meals for a neighborhood soup kitchen.
The program, which has been in operation since autumn quarter, is currently expanding. Originally only Shoreland students were involved, but now Bag Lunch drop-off points are available at Pierce Hall and will soon be at Burton-Judson.
Many students, particularly first years, struggle to use up their abundant meal points before they expire at the end of each quarter. First-years must purchase one of the Freshman meal plans, which range from 134 to 152 meals per quarter, or 12 to 14 meals per week.
Lisa Schoenberger, a first-year in the College living in Max Pavlesky, said that people in her house have bigger meal plans than they are able to use. "People buy chips and Nutrigrain bars in bulk to get rid of all their extra points," she said.
All undergraduate students living in dorms must buy a meal plan. Residents of certain dorms, including Pierce, Burton-Judson, and Max Pavlesky, must buy at least a Moderate meal plan, ranging from 77 to 110 meal points per quarter, or 7 to 10 meals per week.
To participate in the program, students on meal plans must request a bag lunch through the dining hall, and then drop off the lunch in a specified box in their dorm lounge. Currently, there are drop-off boxes in each of Pierce's house lounges and Shoreland's eighth floor lounge. A similar drop-off system will be established in Burton-Judson lounges within the next few weeks.
Members of the Bag Lunch Program collect the food and bring it to the Kenwood United Church Soup Kitchen, located at 4608 South Greenwood in Kenwood. The church's soup kitchen has been in operation for over 20 years and serves lunch six days a week to 125 to 225 people per day.
Reverend Leroy Sanders, senior Pastor of Kenwood United Church, welcomes students' donations. "The lunches the program sends up are very much needed and happily received," he said. "We give the sandwiches to not only the homeless who come through, but also to the homeless children who come in on Saturdays."
"The last week of every month is always more crowded," Sanders said. "That's when people start to run out of resources, and they need to come to us."
Unlike in past years, students can now order a bag lunch and still eat lunch that day in the dining hall. Students can request one bag lunch every day, and so can donate up to seven meals per week. Each bag lunch consists of two sandwiches, a dessert, a piece of fruit, juice, and a bag of chips.
Forms to request bag lunches are available at Pierce and Burton Judson dining halls, and requested lunches can be picked up from dining hall staff.
The program began at the beginning of the school year, and grew steadily throughout last quarter. "About eighth through finals' week, the response to the program was huge because all the first years realized how many meal points they would have left over," explained Sarah Helfinstein, a fourth-year in the College and one of the program's leaders. "People started donating meals every day."
Last quarter, the Bag Lunch Program donated about 30 meals a week, when only Shoreland students were participating. The leaders of the program hope to see this number rise with expansion to Pierce and Burton-Judson and increased publicity.
"People have expressed a lot of interest in the program," Helfinstein said. "They seem very excited that this is being offered, and they're ready to participate."
The leaders of the program are currently working to convince the University's Housing System to use participating students' meal points to purchase non-perishable items that can be donated to local food pantries. Such a plan would prevent dining hall workers from having to assemble large numbers of bag lunches, and students from having to pick up and drop off the food themselves.
"It would make the process a lot easier," Helfinstein said.
The program's members are concerned that dining hall workers will be stressed by the unusually large numbers of bag lunches they will have to make. "So far they've been very accommodating. They're very nice," said Neeraj Singh, a second-year in the College and a leader of the program. "The only issue is that workers get ticked off if the lunches aren't picked up on time, or at all."
The Bag Lunch Program leaders hope to convince the University Administration to accept the new plan.
"Once we get the kind of volume by the end of quarter that we're hoping to get," explained Helfinstein, "the dining hall workers will want Housing to change their policies."
Director of the University House System, Katie Callow-Wright said that using dining points to purchase non-perishable items is not feasible. "Our dining program is not intended or designed to serve as a food distribution source like those that serve food pantries. We allow houses to do a limited number of these kinds of exchanges (called a meal substitution) each year, but we do not allow non-house system groups to do this," Callow-Wright said.