The Black Bear Exchange (BBE) has been helping students and community members on the University of Maine campus by lowering barriers to nutritious food for 11 years. Lisa Morin, coordinator of the Bodwell Center, has been running the BBE for ten of those years.
The BBE is a food pantry and clothing swap on campus. Morin describes the premise of the BBE as, “food in and food out.” The “food in” process comes from many places such as donations from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, personal donations, recovered food from dining halls, agriculture organizations and food drives often held by student organizations on campus. “Food in” also requires workers and volunteers at the BBE to spend significant time repackaging food from the dining halls to make it easy and accessible for college students. Morin described how microwaveable dishes are the easiest way for college students to eat a balanced meal.
The “food out” process looks a little bit different today than it did last year. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the BBE has been working tirelessly to continue to provide healthy food to those in need.
Brendan Ward, a fourth-year biology student, is a student worker at the BBE.
“I believe that everyone should have access to healthy food, but eating healthy is expensive and unfortunately it’s not viable for a lot of people, especially your stereotypical broke college kid,” Ward said. “The Black Bear Exchange is removing that hurdle for people and its providing them with high quality and nutritious foods. We have a selection of non-perishable and dry goods from canned fruits and vegetables to whole wheat pastas to peanut butter and canned beef. We also get hundreds of pounds of fresh produce every week like cabbage, apples, potatoes, kale, lettuce, beets, etc. — you name it we’ve probably had it!”
Aside from produce and dry goods, the BBE also gives out frozen foods. According to Ward, every Friday the BBE team does a “food recovery” from the dining halls where they receive pans of leftover, unused, pre-cooked foods that were on the menu that week. The group divides the food which often includes mac and cheese, steak tips, fish, rice and beans, chicken, etc. into containers to be frozen and placed on order forms for the following week.
“It’s great because rather than get composted (which is also great, don’t get me wrong) it goes into the hands of the people who will eat it and use it immediately,” Ward said. “With all the food we have it lets people have options; they can pick and choose what’s right for them and their diet and we’ll make sure we get it. I have definitely noticed that if it’s available to them, people will choose the healthy options, so it’s a great feeling knowing that we’re helping to remove that barrier into nutritious eating for some people.”
Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an uptick in need for the BBE. Morin explained that before the pandemic, the BBE was helping around 70 to 75 people per week. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, this increased to about 85 to 90 people per week. Since campus reopened for fall semester, the average number of people utilizing the BBE a week is closer to 100. The BBE has served over 180 individuals this semester alone. Ward benefited from the fulfilling work at BBE during the pandemic as well.
“I started working at the Black Bear Exchange back in March just after spring break, immediately after the student body got sent home from the pandemic,” Ward said. “After just a few days of working there it was clear that a lot of people really relied on the service that the BBE provided and I could see the impact it was having on the folks that came to pick up food. We frequently received order forms with comments just saying ‘thank you’ and whatnot and it just kinda made your day knowing you were helping someone out a little bit. With the pandemic I honestly felt a bit honored to work there and get people their groceries cause it felt like I was doing my part in a small way.”
To adapt to the pandemic, the “food out” process now includes online ordering and touchless pickup. Morin told me her motto during the height of the pandemic was, “get food, be safe.”
Oftentimes the hardest part of getting help as a college student is the shame or embarrassment that comes with reaching out for it. Morin acknowledges this can be hard for students, and her and the staff at the BBE try to be as fun and welcoming as possible. Morin would like students who feel apprehension to reach out for the assistance of the BBE to know that “everyone goes through times in their life when they need help,” and not to be ashamed of it. Another barrier Morin addressed was that sometimes students hesitate to use the BBE because they worry that someone else needs it more. Morin urges students not to think this way. There are no credentials to use the BBE, all you need is your Maine Card.
The BBE wouldn’t be possible without the full force of the community behind it. “In the end though, the Black Bear Exchange is a cooperative effort. Without help from the dining halls, Good Shepherd Food Bank, the agriculture groups on campus who donate produce, our community [donations], and Lisa and the rest of the crew it just wouldn’t exist in the capacity it does today. Since we started the drive-in food pickup in March it’s really become a well-oiled machine. Since March we’ve grown to help over 100 members of the UMaine community every week and we’re always seeing new faces. Anyone is welcome at the BBE, so place an order and we’ll gladly fill it.”
“It’s not a one office initiative, the only way that this is success is the fact that the entire campus is involved,” Morin shared.
If you wish to get involved, you can sign up to volunteer with the BBE on their website. There is a need for about four to five volunteers a week, especially on Friday afternoons when they are repackaging 200-250 pounds of food from the cafeterias.
You can also always donate to the BBE. While the BBE welcomes all food items and personal care item donations, they are in need of important products such as cereal, shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste