Starting next week, Ali vonErden, a junior dietetics major at Miami University, will create nutritious recipes for the customers of the Talawanda Oxford Pantry and Social Services (TOPSS).
She is doing this as a part of her field experience requirement for her major. In addition to creating and passing out the recipes, vonErden works as a shopping assistant and a receptionist at the food pantry. In those roles, she signs people in, makes sure they get the correct foods and teaches customers about nutrition.
Dietetic students have been partnering with TOPSS – formerly the Oxford Community Choice Pantry (OCCP) – since 2007 as a way to fulfill their field experience credit.
Nancy Parkinson, who teaches the field experience course, started the partnership as a way to get involved in the community. She and the then director of the pantry noticed that people didn't know how to cook some foods.
She saw this as an opportunity to make a change.
Parkinson started cooking demonstrations at the family resource center, where she showed the shoppers how to make simple yet nutritious meals with ingredients they could find at the pantry. She made sure to include the nutritional value of the meal and how much it would cost.
“One-on-one education really impacts people at the personal level to learn how to improve their eating behaviors,” Parkinson said.
At first, Parkinson and her husband funded the program with their own money. But now, the Miami Student Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (SAND) sponsors it with its nutritional education budget. It gives the students who volunteer at TOPSS the means to create the recipes, cook the meals and give them out at the pantry.
Over the summer, Anthony Baird worked at the pantry for his field experience credit. For four Mondays in August he prepared a snack sample for customers. For the first two weeks, he made a healthier recipe for pizza bites and for the second two weeks he created trail mix out of the dried fruit and grains in the pantry. He set up shop in the waiting area and offered the free food as well as a printed recipe and some educational information about nutrition to people before they got their groceries.
He said a lot of people were simply excited to have a snack while they waited, but the nutritional information really made an impact on people’s diets.
“It opened my eyes about how to approach people to help them,” he said. “I liked the engagement that I had with people about their eating habits.”
Ann Fuehrer, the director at TOPSS, said she believes that having the students create nutritious recipes for the customers is just one part of the total interaction she hopes they have at the pantry.
Fuehrer and the other workers want to make sure they’re always talking about how nutrition impacts overall health.
“Everything we do with customers is intended to go beyond just shopping,” she said.
Traditionally, the dietetic student would cook the meal in the food laboratory in Phillips Hall and then transport it to the food pantry to hand out while people waited to be taken around the store with a shopping assistant.
However, since vonErden doesn’t have a car, she can’t easily transport a crock pot full of food across town from campus to the pantry, located at 400 W Withrow St. Instead, she is planning on creating detailed recipes and shopping lists that she can pass out to people as they come to the pantry. That way, she hopes to help people get nutritious food they’ll use and not just whatever is most convenient.
“A lot of the things that end up being the easiest are the donuts or the processed stews or whatever,” vonErden said. “I’d like to help people understand how to create healthy dishes from whole foods.”
For her first recipe, she plans to create a trail mix recipe.
Since working at TOPSS, vonErden has done more than just help people in need get their groceries. She has formed relationships with both the staff and the shoppers.
“It’s just so amazing to get out of the college scene and realize the needs of the people living in the community that’s just outside your door,” vonErden said.
TOPSS is open Monday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. every week. It serves over 300 families in the area, according to Parkinson.
The current location of the pantry is scheduled to move to a new location inside Merry Day Park in 2020. In addition to being a food pantry, the new building will offer programs related to nutrition and food security. Until then, Fuehrer says TOPSS will continue to utilize the family resource center to educate the community on nutritional health.