The Columns

W&L Campus Kitchen turns 10 Ingrid Easton Wilson ’06 started W&L’s Campus Kitchen, and university employees and volunteers have kept it thriving for a decade.

— by on October 17th, 2016

“It’s been many things over the years, but the most important thing is, it’s been a way for our individuals to have a healthy hot meal, but also to engage in conversation with the students, learn about their backgrounds and their cultures.”

— Laura Williams, Magnolia Center

Students volunteer at the Washington and Lee Campus Kitchen.Students volunteer at the Washington and Lee Campus Kitchen.

Over the past 10 years, the Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee has served nearly 263,000 meals and prevented more than 400,000 pounds of food from going to waste.

That’s a significant impact for a program that once seemed as if it would never be more than an idea.

Ingrid Easton Wilson, who founded Campus Kitchen as a W&L senior in 2006, remembers juggling academics, volunteer work and future career decisions while she tried to map out a way for Washington and Lee to start an on-campus meal program for low-income members of the community. Between her own hectic schedule and the complicated logistics involved in starting such a service, she said, she almost gave up several times.

“Looking back, it was pretty bold of me to just call the provost and say, ‘Can I have a meeting with you?’ and call Dining Services and say, ‘Can I have a meeting with you?’ I just remember a lot of meetings where people would say, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work.’ ”

But thanks to Wilson’s dedication — and lots of support from Washington and Lee — the Campus Kitchen this month is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Wilson, who will return to campus Oct. 20 for a celebration, attributes most of the program’s success to its director, Jenny Davidson, and to the many volunteers who have kept it a thriving effort for a decade.

“It’s been neat to see how Jenny has been the perfect person for that role,” Wilson said. “I don’t feel like I did the hard part, I feel like Jenny has done the hard part. She’s stuck with it and been loyal. For me, it was just luck and inspiration.”

That inspiration struck the summer after Wilson’s sophomore year, when she read the book “Begging for Change” by Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen. During a trip to the capital, she decided to stop by the kitchen and met and talked with Egger, whom she found inspiring.

Ingrid Easton WilsonIngrid Easton Wilson

Back at school, Wilson — an economics major — quit the tennis team, joined the Bonner Program and began to volunteer at various places around Lexington. The next summer, she risked disappointing her parents by turning down a prestigious Goldman Sachs internship in order to live and volunteer at N Street Village, a community for homeless and low-income women in D.C.

When she arrived at Washington and Lee for her senior year, she was more determined than ever to make a permanent impact on campus. University officials decided to jump in and do a trial week near the end of Spring Term. A member of the Campus Kitchens Project, of which W&L’s kitchen is an affiliate, came to campus for the week to direct the project.

“She took the mess that I had and made it work,” Wilson said. “The week was really successful.”

Davidson, a 2008 graduate of Washington and Lee, was hired not long after her graduation. As co-curricular service coordinator for W&L, she also directs Volunteer Venture and the Nabors Service League. Thanks to donations from generous alumni, Campus Kitchen operates out of a professional-grade kitchen, complete with a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, in the basement of the Global Service House on Lee Avenue.

There, volunteers use food donated by Washington and Lee, Virginia Military Institute and Walmart to prepare and deliver meals for clients at various community service organizations in Lexington and Rockbridge County. Through the kitchen’s Backpack Program, local children receive backpacks full of food to take home over the weekend to supplement school nutrition and home meals. In addition, an expansion program called the Mobile Food Pantry delivers food to remote areas of the county – Natural Bridge Station, Goshen and Buena Vista. Since 2006, volunteers have spent nearly 40,000 hours working for Campus Kitchen.

Magnolia Center, a daytime support program for intellectually disadvantaged adults in Lexington, benefits from twice-weekly meal deliveries. Day Support Program Director Laura Williams said their clients love both the square meals and the social interaction they get from Campus Kitchen volunteers.

“We’ve actually been a part of the Campus Kitchen since its inception,” Williams said. “It’s been many things over the years, but the most important thing is, it’s been a way for our individuals to have a healthy hot meal, but also to engage in conversation with the students, learn about their backgrounds and their cultures. A lot of the students are from different countries. It has opened up doors for us.”

Davidson agreed that the human interaction made possible through Campus Kitchen is just as enriching as the meals. “The food is a vehicle for those relationships,” she said.

Wilson, who earned a master’s in social work from the University of South Carolina, is now married and raising two young children in Charlotte, North Carolina. She and her husband, Jonathan, who is a physician, hope to combine their skills to serve refugees and others who “don’t have a platform to speak out.”

Wilson says she never doubted that the Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee would be an enduring success. Its lean operating budget and solid leadership, along with the constant flow of on- and off-campus volunteers, have made it an invaluable part of the university and the larger community.

“I’m so thankful for it,” she said, “and I know it helps a lot of folks.”

Washington and Lee will celebrate the Campus Kitchen’s 10th anniversary on Oct. 20 with a reception in the Elrod Commons Living Room from 7 to 8 p.m. There will be a short presentation at 7:30 p.m., and refreshments will be provided.

Visit the Campus Kitchen at W&L’s website to learn more or to volunteer.