Cafeteria to Community Program continues to serve Decorah area


Aimme Rothschild (‘24) packages food for donation to the Decorah, IA area food pantries. (Photo courtesy of Luther College)

The “Cafeteria to Community” program, run by Luther College, is helping feed those in need and decrease food waste. After being discontinued in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been up and running again since December of 2020. Though it looks slightly different than pre-COVID, there have been attempts to increase balance and make sure that everyone feels safe, while simultaneously providing a service for those facing food insecurity.

On Sunday and Wednesday nights from 6:00-7:00 p.m., the “Cafeteria to Community” program packages food from the Caf buffet lines that has been prepared, but not eaten. The food is then flash-frozen and dropped off to local food pantries on Mondays and Thursdays. The program currently delivers to the Decorah Food Pantry, the Northeast Iowa Community Action Food Pantry, and the West Union’s Open Hands Food Pantry. Olivia Helland (‘22) is the coordinator for the “Cafeteria to Community” program. In addition to packing and delivering food, she also keeps in touch with all the different food pantries, determining which places need food donations.

“The best part about this job is the act of giving back to my community,” Helland said. “Being able to work with students, with staff and faculty, and members of the Decorah community, making connections with those people over an act that is doing better for our community is really nice. Diverting this food from going to compost or the landfill to families in need who receive these meals for little to no cost– it’s just a really good feeling. It’s just really nice to see that Luther is part of this, and making efforts like this.”

When the program started up again this school year, it was difficult to find people to help with food packaging. Though everyone follows all of the Luther COVID-19 safety protocols, there were still many who were nervous to be around people who were not in their ‘bubble’. There were also weeks when regular volunteers had to quarantine. The student workers were very grateful for the staff members that stepped in to help with packaging food during this time. 

As the year has progressed and cases of COVID-19 on campus have decreased, more people have felt comfortable volunteering. The program has packaged a little over 5,500 lbs of food this year, which is a little under half of what they are able to donate in a typical year. Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Decorah Food Pantry Steven Zittergruen says that the food trays from Luther are very much appreciated by those struggling with food insecurity and other beneficiaries. He also urges people to think about how the clients at the food pantry have the same need for food as everyone else.

“It is very expensive and very hard to buy the kinds of food that Luther College gives us for free,” Zittergruen said. “To have prepared food, cooked by professional chefs, that is easy to microwave and eat at home, that is something that, if you’re a single mom working a couple jobs, and you have to get a kid to an activity after school, to be able to just grab something out of the freezer and throw it in the microwave and put a meal on the table for your kids — rather than cooking from scratch — that’s a huge deal for families.”

Zittergruen also wanted to remind Luther students that if they are struggling with food insecurity, they are eligible to use the pantry as residents of Iowa. Especially around school breaks, when the cafeteria hours are not always normal, he urges students to consider the resources food pantries may be able to offer. 

Though the school year is almost over, those who are interested in the “Cafeteria to Community” program are encouraged to volunteer their time and contact Helland at [email protected]. There also will be a student worker position open for the program next year. Aimee Rothschild (‘21) is a current student worker for the program, and explained why she has enjoyed her position this year.

“We get to work with volunteers, and it is so interesting to talk to them, and see what Luther students are up to in general,” Rothschild said. “[We know] that the food that we don’t eat is going to people who do need it, that it’s going to a good place and not being wasted.”