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College students’ leftover meal plan money helps the needy

June 15, 2019

BLOOMSBURG, Pa. (AP) — For the last 15 years, Bloomsburg University students have been quietly stocking the shelves of a town food cupboard, donating more than a ton of food and thousands of dollars in meal-plan funds each year.

With the help of those donations, volunteers at the Bloomsburg Food Cupboard have been able to bag breakfast, lunch, and snacks for elementary students from poor families to take home each weekend, says cupboard director Martha Sheehe.

University students who have meal plan “FLEX” money left in their accounts at the end of the academic year can either spend it down or donate it, according to Tom McGuire, director of media relations at BU. The money does not get refunded to the account holder.

Sometimes students will buy cases of water or soda to drain their accounts, but many donate their remaining cash to ARAMARK, the university’s dining service, which then purchases food to fill the elementary students’ “Panther Packs.”

In just the last two years, students have contributed more than $15,000 in FLEX money.

And when they empty out their dorms, they also donate loads of leftover snacks, McGuire said. The result: “truck after truck” of Ramen noodles coming to the cupboard last month, Sheehe laughed.

Inside the former Winona Fire Hall, where the food cupboard operates every Sunday and Tuesday, boxes of single-serve, reduced-sugar cereal, fruit cups, and small cans of soup were stacked against the wall — all purchases made with university-donated funds, Sheehe pointed out.

And it’s not unusual to see whole groups of BU athletes and honor students volunteering with the food bank throughout the year, she added.

“They make such an impact,” Sheehe told the Press Enterprise. “They are so generous, and that’s something that’s generally unseen by the public.”

With 65 percent of students in Bloomsburg’s Memorial Elementary School eligible for free or reduced lunch, the program is vital to providing much-needed meals to those children on weekends.

Families eligible for free or reduced lunches automatically get an application for the Panther Pack program, but are not obligated to join, Sheehe said.

While there’s been talk of expanding it to the middle school, it’s a harder sell for those students. Younger kids don’t realize they’re getting a pack because they’re poor, but middle school students are much more aware of their financial circumstances, she said. They’re reluctant to let other kids see them picking up and bringing home a pack, Sheehe explained.

Started in the basement of St. Columba in 1996, the food cupboard was simply a small stock of emergency rations, Sheehe explained.

In 23 years, it’s grown to feed 350 to 400 households a week, and provide 213 Panther Packs each week during the school year. None of that’s possible without the nearly 80 volunteers who pick up donations from local businesses several times a week, and the dozens of workers who staff the food cupboard.

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Information from: Press Enterprise, http://www.pressenterpriseonline.com

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