Creating Connection Through Food at the UMD Campus Pantry

By: Jennifer Pilut

As a kid, the food network was one of my favorite channels to watch on TV. I was drawn to the bright colors, cooking tips and fun atmosphere of the cooking shows. This early curiosity in food and cooking sparked my initial interest in a career in dietetics. Fast forward a few years, cooking is less of a passion of mine when you compare it to the joy I experience when providing nutrition education and counseling to others. During my sustainability rotation at the UMD food pantry, I was able to combine my joy of nutrition education with the creative aspect of cooking to help students utilize the food pantry supplies in the best way possible. 

Meredith and Jen in front of their roasted chickpea food display

A food display is a common tool that many dietitians use to help reach their audience. Providing samples gives people a chance to try something new. It also allows the RD to educate the public and reach people in a relaxed setting. The opportunity I had to connect with students during my food display was heart-warming. The display was so successful we had students coming back the next day to learn and try our other featured item. Seeing the excitement and interest of students demonstrated the success food samples and displays can have when done with positive energy and an organized plan. 

When designing and creating the food display at UMD, my partner, Meredith, and I took three main steps. The first step involved developing the vision and large picture theme that fits with the selected ingredient and nutrition education topic. The second main step was completing the display’s prep work; this involved chopping, cutting, organizing and cooking to have everything ready for the customer. Finally, the third and most important step was executing the display. During the display, I talked with students, handed out samples and brought all the main points of the display together. Learning and practicing these steps during this rotation helped me develop skills that I plan to re-use when completing other displays in the future.

Participants can watch on the TV above while someone cooks during a food demo

I saw two ways to create a vision and identify the goal of our display at the food pantry: 1) decide what food to feature or 2) what nutrition education topic to teach. Meredith and I started with the ingredients found in the food pantry store to guide our display. The overall goal of all food displays held at UMD’s campus pantry is to help students learn how to cook the ingredients that are available at the food pantry. Chickpeas were the ingredient we picked due to their high protein content, versatility and low cost. After choosing the food item we wanted to cook with, we then decided on the theme and goal of our food display. Using roasted chickpeas we came up with the idea of providing students with different flavors of roasted chickpeas to help them identify spices they could use when cooking other items like vegetables, chicken or tofu. This display also allowed us to educate students on how to make a quick, high-protein snack. We were able to hand out free measuring spoons so students could follow the recipe provided at home. We had a spicy, savory, sweet, citrus and smoked flavor of chickpea. I learned that planning the vision of the display is crucial for success and ensures that the food being used can work together with the nutrition information. Without an overall goal and vision the next step, prepping, can be a daunting task. 

On the day of the display, Meredith and I arrived early to preheat the oven, strain the chickpeas, and begin to design the presentation of the display. There are many elements that are involved in the prep of the display and this can be the most time-consuming part. A key aspect of planning is creating recipe cards for students to take with them. This allows them to replicate the recipe at home. Additionally, we needed to ensure there were enough cups, spoons, signs, extra materials and cooking supplies. The cooking, set-up and final touches of the display took about 3 hours to prep before the students arrived. I learned to allocate plenty of time for the brainstorming process of thinking through where the samples, giveaways and other tools related to the demo should be located. Within the food pantry space, we wanted to facilitate the best opportunity to learn, have students try the food and feel comfortable to ask questions and interact with us. 

A close-up of the display which included the spices used and free samples

Free samples are a great way to reach people in a friendly and simple way. The execution and final step to any food display is putting everything together by getting students to try the food you cooked! After discussing the plan with other staff members, we decided to set up the display in front of the entrance to allow students to grab a sample before filling up their bags. We hoped students would add chickpeas at checkout and be encouraged to try cooking at home. During our display, the savory flavor of chickpeas was the seasoning many students gravitated towards when approaching our station. Many students responded positively overall and were excited to try the recipe at home. Others voiced their enjoyment of the display and looked forward to learning more recipes in the future. Food displays and samples at UMD’s pantry made the space feel open and inviting. The display helped UMD’s sustainability staff with their goal of making sure students feel comfortable coming to the pantry often. 

The recipe used for the popular savory seasoning

Interacting with students, providing them with resources and giving them an opportunity to try new things is one of my favorite aspects of my future career. Having the chance to practice cooking and create a vision of how we can educate the students was a great experience. While setting up the display and providing the samples took effort, I felt the results were worth the work. It was rewarding to see the students engaged and eager to come back to the pantry again. I look forward to future food displays and demos at the food pantry as I believe they are great ways for people to learn more about nutrition and maybe even try something new! 

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