Community Food Engagement Faces Challenges

For 23 years, Colorado College offered the people in Colorado Springs who were experiencing homelessness a free Sunday meal in Sacred Grounds through CC’s Community Kitchen. The practice came to a halt during the 2014-2015 academic school year due to a variety of factors.

David Harker, then-Director of the Collaborative for Community Engagement, told the Gazette in March of 2015 that the event was taking a toll on Shove Chapel and that meals were served elsewhere in Colorado Springs. In addition, he pointed to a lack of student participation.

Senior Madeline Lee concurred with Harker’s conclusion of insufficient student participation. Lee, who worked in the Community Kitchen, said, “after the Soup Kitchen closed, there was a lot of backlash from students. But one of the reasons it did close is because there wasn’t student involvement. Even after protests, students still weren’t involved and still didn’t really show that they cared about people experiencing homelessness.”

Others say that the college became uncomfortable with the idea of the homeless community arriving on campus every Sunday. Still others point to the transitioning goals of the college and the possibility of new ways to help those experiencing homelessness.

The college’s new interests led to the Soup Project Challenge, held in spring of 2015, which requested proposals from student groups interested in issues of homelessness and hunger to pitch ideas for a $20,000 pot of seed money. The Innovation Institute organized the pitching process, though the Collaborative for Community Engagement (CCE) also participated. “We are in the midst of the $20,000 Soup Project Challenge,” said then-CCE Director Harker. “This will fund student-designed social innovation projects addressing these issues in the local community.”

A CC trustee matched CC’s $20,000 commitment, increasing the total to $40,000. The seed money was split among four student groups: Grits, Mobile Meals, Family Day Center, and Ponderosa Project.

At the time, the Soup Project Challenge heralded a new era of CC’s involvement in homelessness and hunger issues. But in the intervening two years, one project has folded, another one is in hiatus, and the remaining two are unsure of their financial futures and viability. In addition, these two years featured high transition in both the offices of the CCE and the Innovation Institute and the withdrawal by the trustee of the initial matching pledge of $20,000.

This calls into question the efficacy of the Soup Project Challenge as well as the administration, and the student body’s involvement in homelessness and hunger issues in Colorado Springs.

The Student Groups

The Family Day Center “never really got off the ground,” said Dr. Jordan Radke, current Director of the CCE.

Mobile Meals had initial success, but when their founders all graduated in 2016, it left a hole that the organization has been unable to fully fill. “What we found is that if you take the original, highly empowered student’s vision and hand it over to somebody else that not every student can step into something that amorphous,” said Radke. However, there are hopes that moving forward, Mobile Meals will be revived successfully.

Grits and Ponderosa Project are both still functioning, though with challenges to their future financial and functional viability.

Grits Collective focuses on bringing together members of the CC community with the homeless population of Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy of Grits Collective

Grits works to gather stories from people experiencing homelessness and spread the stories to the community. Currently, the latter occurs through placements in the Colorado Springs Independent, which runs $500 a page according to former Grits leader Senior Reed Young, who graduated this past winter. “We did have a good amount of seed money funding from the project but the model that Grits created in publishing stories and articles in the Independent is fairly expensive,” said Senior Max Rawson, a current Grits leader. “That money has been running out. Those publications reach 35,000 people, but it’s just not a fiscally sustainable model.”

For Ponderosa Project, the issues began immediately. Their original proposal involved selling food the original name was Ponderosa Pastries. “We had to go through a lot of hoops trying to get it legally okayed with the administration here to sell Bon Appétit to our student body, to be a student organization while also selling a product,” said Lee, a founder of the Ponderosa Project (PP). “So although at the beginning that was our model, that’s what the Innovation Institute really pushed for us to do, to have this sustainable model to keep us going on our own, the reality was that the structure here in an academic setting is just not conducive for a nonprofit.”

Both these groups raise questions about the Soup Project Challenge. For Grits, the evaluating committee appeared to look past the unsustainable nature of consistently publishing stories without a source of revenue. For PP, the endorsement of such a proposal suggests that the committee did not analyze the legal viability of such an endeavor.

Seed Money Controversy

The withdrawal by the trustee of the matching $20,000 caused major hiccups, but the withdrawal was exacerbated by the fact that the groups were not told of the lack of funds until over a year after the withdrawal. “They pledged $40,000 and the donor never came through,” said Young. “Grits found out about that a year and a half after the fact.”

Claire Vernon, a co-founder of the PP with Lee, said “[The CCE] totally kept us in the dark about it, so we thought that we had way more money than we did for a long time and were spending it like that.” Lee added, “We had no idea this was an issue until they were about out of money. They said that they had been using part of the PP money for other groups because they had kept it all in the same pool. Right off the bat, we had requested to have our money put into a separate account so we could track the spending.” Radke explained that “The issue was that these funds were donations to the college to support the college’s engagement on these issues and so couldn’t be transferred to individual businesses outside of the college.”

Further aggravateing the problem, at least from Grits’ perspective, was the non-transparency of the allocation of the remaining $20,000. “When they realized the alumni giving was out of the option, the CCE told us that we didn’t have any funding left,” said Young. “That was early fourth block. They didn’t tell us that the rest was going to the PP. We didn’t find out that the rest of the $20,000 was going to the PP until we emailed the PP.” 

Grits sent a letter to Radke and Shanna of the CCE protesting the funding situation and the lack of professionalism in the CCE’s decision not to inform Grits that the PP was receiving the remaining funds. Grits wrote that the college “has used our program to promote its image in our local community, including multiple website posts, an article that appeared in ‘Around the Block,’ and President Tiefenthaler’s brief mention of our work in her 2016 commencement address.”

The issue was resolved with the use of funds from the dean’s office. “When I stepped in [to the Director position], I quickly became aware of this funding gap,” Radke said. “Even now it is bizarre to me that it had not been addressed beforehand. I kept getting circular answers from people and came to the conclusion that the best response would be to advocate for an alternative funding source to fulfill the college’s commitment to these groups.” Radke went to Dean Sandi Wong and Associate Dean Mike Siddoway—who had played an active role in the Community Kitchen—and they were able to provide funds to replace the withdrawal by the trustee.

However, frustration persisted because of the lack of accountability. “We didn’t know the donor’s name because of the politics of alumni giving,” said Young. “The Office of Advancement would not say because the person probably gives other places.” In addition, the disclosure of the name of a college trustee who had withdrew funds from such a project might result in negative or unwanted publicity.

Transition at the CCE and Innovation Institute

The transitory past few years at both the Innovation Institute and the CCE may have contributed to issues. The head of the Innovation Institute at the time of the challenge, Patrick Bultema, is no longer Director of Innovation. In addition, Dave Harker left as Director of the CCE in November 2016 and Shanna Farmer left the CCE in December 2016.

“The CCE has been really supportive, but similar to Grits, they have been undergoing a lot of transitions in leadership,” said Rawson. “Our relationship has been a little disjointed. It is hard for staff to get to know student leaders personally when it is switching around on a semester basis.” Vernon added that “the turnover rate at the CCE was a big issue because there is not going to be continuity with interns, those are always changing, so you have to have a structure in the institution of the school to support that.”

In addition, the lack of local knowledge added to the difficult process of adding new employees. “The school kept hiring people for the CCE who weren’t from Colorado Springs and knew nothing about what was going on or even about the project,” said Vernon.

Moving Forward in the Shadow of the Community Kitchen

“Going out into the community after the ending of the soup kitchen and talking to people living at these shelters…they really did say that we are pretty upset that the Soup Kitchen at CC closed and that we really did look for that Sunday,” said Lee. “So that was really challenging too—to create a project that would reinvent something that was already working for the community, that was already doing something for the community.”

As the groups chosen from the Soup Project Challenge either fall away or expand, the shadow the Community Kitchen will also likely fall away as the students who were on-campus during the operation graduate.

Clearly the Community Kitchen had the advantage of being highly visual and known on campus. “I think it was just known across campus that on Sundays the Soup Kitchen holds their weekly session, whereas a lot of the events through Grits, MM, PP, and FDC occur off-campus and are not advertised a ton,” said Rawson. “I also don’t think that is important per se. I think the primary goal of the Soup Challenge was to foster a community of groups that engage with the community…these groups branch out a little bit more to events, arts projects, food insecurity.”

Radke reflected on what she saw as issues with conceptualizations of the Soup Project Challenge as a whole: “My impression of this whole process was that there was a pretty big gap between what the students were asked to propose and what the college actually was interested in. From everybody that I have talked to, it sounds like students were asked to propose self-funded businesses that would basically exist outside of the college. And then my understanding is that what the college actually wanted, and what the CCE was asked to advise, were long-term campus-community partnerships.”

“To me the underlying issue is that it was potentially conceptualized wrong,” Radke continued. “I think the best way to impact hunger and homelessness in our community is to plug into and transform existing initiatives and I think that one of the biggest flaws of this program was in expecting students to come up with brand new ideas.”

Despite concerns with the implementation, Radke said, “There is, from our perspective at least, strong institutional commitment to continue to engage in issues of hunger and homelessness and to find the good ideas within these initial projects.”

Young balances his deliberations on the Soup Project Challenge. On one hand, “CC is an institution of the status quo,” he said. “CC has so much money, and it was so frustrating for me, like I just wanted to go down and do interviews [at the Marion House]. I was spending more time in meetings than volunteering or publishing stories.”

But Young said that improvement was necessary for student groups and the school alike: “We could have done better and the CCE could have done better.”

Radke hopes to see that improvement and shake the trend of transition in the CCE. “I am new to this director position and so want to be hopeful and forward-looking,” said Radke. “We face so many challenges and have such a rocky history and we really want to fix it and be here for a long time and build something fantastic.”

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