The University of Maine’s Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism is happy to announce that the Black Bear Exchange, the food and clothing pantry run by the Bodwell Center, will be finalizing its partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank this month. 

The Bodwell Center started as a club of volunteers, made up of students who wanted to give back to their community and help improve it in doing so. Over time, the volunteers collaborated with other members of the community, strengthening their ties with organizations around campus. Originally, they were connected with the Center for Student Employment. As this group was able to work with other organizations in campus life, they were able to take part in programs such as the Black Bear Mentors program to participate in community outreach and strengthen the ties in the communities surrounding UMaine. 

In 2005, Russ and Barbara Bodwell made a gift to the university that established an office of service and volunteerism. This allowed the students currently involved in service projects and volunteering efforts to unify under an organized office, rather than simply organizing themselves with the assistance of an advisor. This gift from the Bodwells allowed for full-time staff, made up of one full-time administrative member, graduate assistants and multiple work-study student workers. Lisa Moran is currently the coordinator of the Bodwell Center and oversees many of the service projects on campus, as well as other volunteerism initiatives. 

The Black Bear Exchange, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in April 2019, was the first food pantry on a college campus in the state of Maine. Moran noted that the project to implement a food pantry on the UMaine campus arose out of a conversation about students who suffered from food insecurity who were not able to access the services at other local food pantries. Many students, Moran explained, were not able to use these pantries simply because the services required a lot of paperwork to apply, the hours they were open were restricted to students’ typical class hours and many non-traditional students who had families were not able to get the type of assistance that would most help them. 

At traditional food pantries in local communities, one of the major roadblocks to receiving assistance is income. Although many students are taking out loans to pay for their education, the loans and scholarships granted by the university system count toward the annual income for these students, preventing them from qualifying for the pantry services. 

After seeing this need in the community, members of the UMaine faculty, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, members of the social work department and other interested organizations came together to establish a food pantry with non-perishable, shelf-stable foods. 

Another step that UMaine took to address food insecurity was to implement unlimited meal plans. Prior to the conversation about food insecurity, students who purchased a meal plan, regardless of their enrollment status, had a predetermined amount of meal swipes per month on their cards. The University of Maine System, in their attempt to address food insecurity, became one of the first university systems in the nation to provide unlimited meal plans to their enrolled students. 

As the Black Bear Exchange garnered interest, they were able to assess the needs of the community better and are now able to provide pre-packaged meals which are gathered from leftover dining hall food. The food recovery program is part of UMaine’s dedication to cutting down on food waste and giving back to the community.

“We go through almost 1000 pounds of food a month,” Moran said. “In the past, we’ve served probably 50-60 students per year. There were core groups of students from the community that came in every week that regularly used the services. Last year, that number jumped up to 157 students walking through the doors.” 

Moran noted that she has seen the number of students coming into the Black Bear Exchange grow, as more students find out about this resource and are spreading the word. 

“More and more students are taking out loans to pay for school, or they are choosing to work part- or full-time to cut down on the cost of their loans after they graduate. This leads to a higher number of students living off-campus, a higher number of students trying to cut costs anywhere they can, and that usually gets cut from their food budget,” Moran said. “Another thing to consider is that students may be feeding themselves, but they aren’t eating enough or they aren’t eating the right thing.”

The partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank will help to lower costs of purchasing food, as the food that is gathered by the Good Shepherd Food Bank is often donated from overstock and charitable organizations. This means that the Black Bear Exchange will be able to purchase almost twice as much food for the prices that they had previously been paying.

“We spent almost $800 on food in September,” Moran said. “With this partnership, we will be able to provide even more food and resources to better serve our community.” 

The Black Bear Exchange will be hosting an open house on Oct. 8 at 3 p.m.