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Meramec’s Brown Bag Cafe is STLCC Innovation of the Year

April 16, 2015

Brown Bag Cafe award presentation  
Meramec’s Brown Bag Café was named the STLCC Innovation of the Year. Pictured at the announcement were, from left, Pam McIntrye, Meramec campus president; Debbie Corson, service learning coordinator; Debora Jane Bronson, Student Assistance program specialist; and Dennis Michaelis, STLCC interim chancellor.

A project designed to provide free meals and groceries to students in need at the Meramec campus has been named St. Louis Community College’s District Innovation of the Year.

The Brown Bag Café (BBC) serves as a food pantry for students who need assistance. The BBC team includes Pam Garvey, professor of English; Sanela Mesic, TRIO Student Services coordinator; Doris Durgins-Johnson, project associate for the Student Assistance program (SAP); Debora Jane Bronson, SAP specialist; Debbie Corson, service learning coordinator; and Jeff Schneider, associate professor of English and Phi Theta Kappa chapter sponsor. Steve Brady, retired manager of campus life, was involved extensively at the beginning of the project.

“In two short years, the Brown Bag Café has become an institution on our campus and a source of pride and commitment,” Corson said. “The original focus, to help students in need, has remained the core of the café’s mission, but it has also become a positive and unifying force on the campus.”
Individual students help package lunches and grocery bags, and keep track of food intake and output for the pantry.  Faculty departments sign up to adopt the café each month, which provides a major source of food and money for the pantry.  Individual faculty members do a variety of service learning projects to support the café and raise student awareness of hunger and poverty. For example, Garvey has focused on food in her service learning English classes for several semesters.

A Meramec student actually set the project in motion when she researched the idea of starting a campus food pantry as part of her honors section of English Composition II. Research and survey findings set the stage for a series of meetings that eventually led to the formation of a campus food pantry committee.

Mesic said the success of the BBC stemmed from the initial collaboration between many departments and student organizations on campus. It involved SAP, which already was handing out meal vouchers to students; TRIO Student Support Services and Phi Theta Kappa, which represented two student organizations that largely focus on serving their campus community; Campus Life, which provided a “home” for the BBC in the Student Center; and Corson who was able to bring together not only all five groups, but also outside resources and organize the pieces that make up the BBC.

Since its inception in 2013, service learning has taken charge of food drives, marketing and donor relations. SAP actually runs the café, distributing food and keeping statistics. TRIO and Phi Theta Kappa conduct food and fund drives, volunteer wherever necessary, and help with student awareness. 

"In addition to staff support, students really led the charge in founding the BBC. Their voice is invaluable. They embraced this project because it serves fellow students," Mesic said. "The final numbers were astonishing. Hunger on campus was no longer a myth but a real, tangible problem."

The BBC has served 3,585 meals and provided 475 bags of groceries to students in need.  During the same period, organizers have collected more than 19,000 food items and over $5,500 to support the café. 

The League for Innovation in the Community College established the Innovation of the Year Award to recognize individuals or groups from alliance member colleges who have created and implemented innovative programs, practices, partnerships, policies and activities that improve the institution’s ability to serve students and the community. Criteria for the award are quality, efficiency, cost effectiveness, replication, creativity and timeliness.