When money takes the wheel

    Catie May first found out about the Campus Kitchen in typical Northwestern fashion: through a listserv. She said the club, which gives away food from the dining halls that would otherwise go to waste, appealed to her because it felt like a good way to get involved. Two days a week, student volunteers like May quietly enter Allison Hall through the service door and head to the pantry. There, they prep meals out of leftover fare, then pass them to the delivery shift for drop off at places in Evanston like churches, organizations serving at-risk teenagers and shelters for the homeless. With each meal, volunteers try to include a protein, carbohydrate, vegetable and dessert. In November 2018 alone, the group repurposed 480 pounds of uneaten campus food.

    Sam Dorn, the lead residential coordinator of a Boys Hope home (an organization that provides housing and educational support to children in need), estimates that the Campus Kitchen’s weekly delivery saves the group nearly $3,900 a year. And the Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church (where volunteers also deliver food), described the organization as “a valuable partner” and “an important collaborator to the community of Evanston.”

    But this fall, university budget cuts threatened the Campus Kitchen’s operation. Ten days before classes started in September, May, who is a Weinberg junior, along with about a dozen other leaders of community service clubs on campus, received an email informing them that the university’s “community service van program” no longer existed. The program granted service-oriented clubs the use of free, on-call transportation to carry out their weekly (and in some cases, daily) service.

    Campus Kitchens, as the group is informally known, used the vans to help deliver nearly 300 meals a week to the Evanston community. May, now the club’s president, scrambled to find an alternate form of transport that wouldn’t leave the club strapped for cash. Without the vans, it will now cost Campus Kitchens about $1,000 a quarter to get the food from campus to the community using Zipcar – a car-sharing service that lets users rent cars by the hour – but they never had to budget for transit at all, until now.

    The community service van program allowed students to grab the keys from the Norris Center Desk and pick up the vans from the top floor of the Segal Visitors Center lot, their usual parking spot, or from the sixth floor when it snowed. The clubs that used them, all of which are community service-oriented, paid nothing: The university took care of maintenance, repairs and even gas.

    Supplies for Dreams also relied on the vans. They used them to shuttle Northwestern students from Evanston to Chicago, where they serve as mentors and provide extracurricular activities to Chicago Public Schools students. Because the group’s operation requires two rides a day, four days a week, club president and RTVF sophomore Lucia Boyd estimated the van cuts will cost the club $4,000 a quarter in Uber charges.

    “Our main source of transportation – our only source of transportation – was the community service vans that got cut,” Boyd says.

    Other Northwestern services faced the chopping block this year as well. In January, Provost Jonathan Holloway announced at a Faculty Senate meeting that the university expected to run a $50 to $100 million operating deficit for the fiscal year. Over the summer, 80 staff members were let go, and officials informed faculty and staff in a memo that they aimed to reduce administrative department spending by 10 percent (excluding salaries).

    As officials work to balance the budget for the next year, they “have to make judicious cuts, hard decisions and pause some things temporarily,” University spokesman Bob Rowley said in an email. “As a result, the University was no longer able to sustain a free community service van program for registered student organizations.”

    Students often come to community service organizations to get involved “off the bubble of Northwestern’s campus,” says Boyd, explaining why she joined Supplies for Dreams. Even though relations between the university and the surrounding community improved in general over the past decade, Northwestern and Evanston still share a rocky history.

    “Northwestern students who volunteer in the community have the opportunity to improve community relations with the university at very little cost, yet our resources were some of the first to be cut,” says Christina Shehata, Weinberg senior and co-director of Community Health Corps. (Her organization also felt the strain: The loss of the vans forced the club to shorten volunteer hours at the Skokie Public Library, where they operate a health resource desk, because of high transportation costs.)

    Some administrators on campus played an instrumental role in helping groups affected by the van cuts find solutions. Valerie Buchanan, Northwestern’s assistant director of leadership development and community engagement, used a special community engagement grant fund to funnel money to qualified groups struggling with new transportation costs.

    The Associated Student Government did its part to help organizations as well. ASG allocates $1.5 million in funds every year to qualified student organizations – all of which comes directly out of the student activities fee in Northwestern’s tuition, so the budget cuts did not directly impact the funding of ASG-recognized organizations. But because of the non-profit nature of Campus Kitchens and Supplies for Dreams, the groups never relied on ASG for funding in the past because they did not have major expenses.

    When news of the budget shortfall broke in the spring, Isabel Dobbel, ASG A-status vice president, anticipated some student organizations would need money. So she coordinated with administrators to use a $65,000 “contingency fund.” About 15 years ago, the ASG budgeted and put away extra money exactly for situations like this, but no one needed it until now. So the emergency funding comes at no cost to current students, and will be replenished by a planned increase to the student activities fund next year (an increase, Dobbel notes, that was passed years prior to the budget crisis).

    Fall quarter, Dobbel and her team allocated an emergency $26,000 in funding – a portion of which went to Campus Kitchens and Supplies for Dreams. Dobbel says she expects to do another round of emergency funding winter quarter as well.

    By now, most groups have found alternative solutions and funding. Campus Kitchens received funding from ASG and their national purveyor to pay for Zipcar, but they still thought through all possible transit scenarios. Because they deliver in Evanston and Wilmette, some sites that receive meals are not walking or biking distance from campus. Using CTA trains and buses is impractical because of the quantity of food. And Uber, while a practical solution to the door-to-door problem, fines riders for spills – less than ideal for a club that moves food.

    Still, Zipcar presents its own set of challenges. Each student who drives needs their own Zipcar card, May says, which the club has to pay a fee to get. Students have to reserve cars themselves, so club leaders rely on shift volunteers to remember to book vehicles (with the vans, May could reserve transportation for every shift for the entire quarter before it even started). Zipcar also presents a problem if someone is sick or needs a sub. With the community service vans, they “always had a van that someone could drive,” and the stress of transit did not fall on the shoulders of club leaders.

    Uber works as a solution for Supplies for Dreams for now, but they had few other options. Boyd and other leaders toyed with the idea of buying a club van, but ultimately decided against it because repair costs add up over time. Zipcars generally only seat four or five people – not enough spots for the number of student mentors heading to and from the schools each day. Aside from members with personal vehicles, they settled on using Uber XLs because they seat up to seven passengers. But the cost adds up.

    “I was shocked,” Boyd says of hearing about the van cuts. “I didn’t really understand why because I feel like it’s such an important thing that has a really big impact on our outer community.”

    Despite the blow, Buchanan says she doesn’t think administrators intended to cripple community service with the budget cuts.

    “Five vehicles was a great resource, but it’s only one solution to community engagement," she says.


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