The College Avenue Community Church on the College Avenue campus recently began offering meals at no cost to Rutgers students, according to an announcement from the church.
The initiative will allow Rutgers students and their families, regardless of their religious beliefs, to receive meals Monday through Friday, said Caryn Washington, assistant director of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships.
Reverend Douglas Shepler, a senior pastor of the church, said that the program will continue during the remainder of this fall semester and the upcoming spring semester. But he added that if students demonstrate a need for meals during breaks as well, the church is willing to provide meals at those times.
Shepler said that the program, which was named the Two Fishes Student Brunch program after the biblical verse related to a meal with five loaves and two fishes, first began in 2019. During that time, he met with students and the Rutgers Student Food Pantry to discuss levels of food insecurity among the Rutgers student population.
Food insecurity is generally defined as the inability to have routine or ready access to foods that are safe and healthy to consume, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A study run by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic found that across both two- and four-year collegiate institutions, approximately 34 percent of students faced food insecurity. These are similar to rates of food insecurity on the Rutgers campus, as previously reported by The Daily Targum.
"(Students) told me that the University had done an internal research project and discovered that 1 in 3 students were food needy," Shepler said.
At the time of that discussion, a proposed solution was to have the campus’ food supplier donate meals from Brower Commons on the College Avenue campus to the church, Shepler said. The church’s location would allow the supplier to donate meals without breaching its contract with the University.
The program served as a pilot project for two weeks in 2019, growing from 40 recipients to 200 in that time, he said. Since then, the church has raised thousands of dollars to refurbish the kitchen to ensure it would meet commercial standards. Shepler said that presently, the church can serve up to 250 individuals.
The church has also previously provided aid to the Rutgers student community through services such as free COVID-19 testing, Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, access to food from the Five Loaves Food Pantry, religious counseling services (by appointment) and affordable household items and clothing from the Second Reformed Thrift Shop, he said.
For the general community, the church also offers support from the food pantry among other services, like providing professional attire at no cost to those who may not be able to afford them for job interviews.
Such facilities have expanded since 2000, with resources such as the food pantry existing for more than a decade.
"Students have volunteered for many years now to both the food pantry as well as the thrift shop," Shepler said. "To be honest, we are always in need of volunteers."
The brunch project in particular relies on volunteers to service the kitchen, with individuals from the church’s network and both students and staff from the University providing aid, he said. Currently, he said he has approximately six individuals who regularly volunteer and approximately 10 guests per day.
Students and members of the community who are interested in volunteering for the program can sign up online, and those who are in need of meals can collect them at 100 College Avenue in the Demarest Gymnasium, at the Rutgers Student Food Pantry or at the Five Loaves Food Pantry.