RandiLynn Frohnapfel hopes to land a job in the hospitality and tourism industry after earning her associate degree in business administration from Pittsburgh Technical College next year, which means she'll work around those who prepare and serve food.
Still, she never imagined her education would include sticking her hands into the earth to weed on a hot July day on the school's hilltop campus in Oakdale.
Though her parents had a garden while she was growing up in Martinsburg, Ohio, it just wasn't her thing. But that's not to say digging around in the dirt over the last few months hasn't been fun.
The 20-year-old college sophomore was all smiles on a recent Monday as she circled the fenced-in patch of land she and four others in her program carefully planted in June, making sure the tomato plants they'd propped up on stakes were getting enough sun and water and checking to see what was ripe for plucking.
The school turned a sunny 40-by-60-foot plot of land behind its dorms into a garden and asked students to tend it in an effort to help combat food insecurity on campus. They grow a wide array of vegetables that students in the culinary department could turn into soups and healthy meals for their peers. It's a process that takes place under the practiced eye of chef Donald Hutchins, who has over 30 years of culinary experience that he shares with students both inside and outside the classroom.
PTC has had a food pantry that is stocked each week with canned foods and college staples like Pop-Tarts for at least 20 years, said Mark Bellemare, business and hospitality program coordinator. But the need for access to safe, nutritious food on campus has only grown over the years, and not just at PTC.
A recent study by Temple University's Hope Center found that 38% of students in two-year colleges and 29% of students at four-year colleges reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous month. Yet, a little more than half of students who faced food or housing insecurity in 2020 did not apply for support because they did not know how, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
PTC's three food pantries currently see upwards of 250 swipes a month, said Stephanie Svilar, dean of counseling & student development.
COVID-19 has only added to the complexity of campus hunger: A study by the research and advocacy arm of the education technology and services company Chegg found one-third of students know someone who has dropped out of college due to food insecurity throughout the pandemic.
So when PTC officials last August learned about the PDE's new Pennsylvania Hunger-Free Campus Initiative — with $1 million in the 2022-2023 state budget to support it — they jumped at the chance to participate.
"Hunger is a devastating reality affecting too many of Pennsylvania's postsecondary students as they strive to further their education, and today I am proud to say that, here in Pennsylvania, we are refusing to accept it," former Pennsylvania First Lady Frances Wolf noted when announcing the program at Millersville University in August 2022.
The program is pretty straightforward. Any school that takes steps to address student hunger can apply for the PA Hunger-Free Campus designation. Once earned, they're also eligible to apply for up to $60,000 in grant money (depending on enrollment) for use in connecting students with food pantries or meal delivery programs — either on campus or in the community — and increasing awareness of eligibility for SNAP.
In January, PTC was among the 28 schools to receive a grant — $19,400 to build and plant the garden. Other regional awardees include the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, La Roche and Robert Morris universities.
Kept safe from hungry deer with chain-link fencing, the garden is green with more than 70 herbs and vegetables, including zucchini, eggplant, peppers and a whole lot of tomatoes. Thanks to the generosity of Jay Glaus, who studied electronics engineering at PTC and is now the school's assistant to the academic chair of robotics, there's also the beginnings of a small orchard with two peach and two pear trees.
Many of the plants came from Home Depot or Lowe's; others were donated by faculty and staff in a show of support for the program. All are watered in the evening via a hose attached to a water buffalo tank filled with rain water guttered nearby.
Glaus, who grew up on a farm in Westmoreland County and now lives in Pleasant Hills, was instrumental in prepping the ground for growth, having released some 1,100 worms into the earth to measure the pH of the soil. He also oversaw the planting, which thanks to Frohnapfel and her fellow students, has flourished. Along with countless zucchini for soup and bread, he expects the garden to yield at least 100 tomatoes based on the number of blossoms.
Any leftovers not used by the culinary team will go into refrigerators in the school's food pantries, which are open 24/7 with usage kept anonymous to prevent any stigma.
The garden wasn't the only thing to bloom from the PDE grant. PTC had enough money left over after planting that they are able to offer $10 cafeteria vouchers to assist students in need. Since May, they've dispersed about $800 worth.
That, in turn, allows staff to gauge if students need additional help. They can receive food bundles distributed weekly based on the students' dietary needs.
And for the green-thumbed kids who are at the core?
"If it gets us outside and is helpful for other students and us, it's really nice," Frohnapfel said as she and classmates Jazmine Jones and Clayton Foster inspected a row of cucumber plants to see if the fruit was firm, smooth and ready to pick.
"It a nice resource," agreed Lillian Vignere, 18, of Ambridge, "because it helps the food pantry."
This easy recipe makes good use of seasonal vegetables and affordable pantry ingredients.
1 ounce (around 2 tablespoons) olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup diced celery
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced cabbage
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon tomato paste
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 cup dry ditalini or other small pasta
1/2 pound cooked cannellini beans
3/4 cup diced zucchini or yellow squash, seeds removed
1/4 cup diced red, yellow or green pepper
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
Salt and pepper
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Heat oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven, then add carrots, onions and celery. Saute vegetables, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add cabbage and garlic, and saute until garlic is aromatic, about 30 seconds (do not brown).
Add tomatoes, tomato paste and stock. Bring to a gentle boil and then simmer for 20 minutes.
Add ditalini and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. (If not serving immediately, cook pasta separately and add desired amount when serving the soup.)
Stir in cannellini beans, zucchini and pepper, then simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve drizzled with a small amount of olive oil and/or fresh-grated Parmesan cheese.
Makes 8 1-cup servings.
— Pittsburgh Technical College American Academy of Culinary Arts
This just might be the easiest, and freshest, of all summer soups. All you need to make it is garden-fresh veggies, tomato juice and a food processor.
2 pounds fresh peeled and seeded tomatoes
1 quart V-8 juice (I used low-sodium)
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
8 ounces diced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves
1 1/4 ounces red wine vinegar
Zest and juice 1 lemon
3 ounces olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
Hot sauce, to taste
Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor until slightly chunky. Taste, and adjust seasoning, if desired, with additional lemon, hot sauce, salt and/or black pepper.
Serve in bowls, garnished with chopped scallion and/or sour cream.
Serves a crowd.
— Pittsburgh Technical College American Academy of Culinary Arts
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