As a foods and nutrition major, Darren Johnson learned about the chemistry of food, meal planning, biology and traditional ethnic dishes. His knowledge was mostly theoretical until last year, when he helped open a food bank in downtown Pomona.
Professor Lisa Kessler asked students in her community nutrition service-learning course to use their education to benefit the local community. Many taught nutrition workshops in Pomona for mothers and their children. But Johnson saw a different opportunity.
A member of Sigma Nu, he knew that the Greek community collected thousands of canned goods each spring for the Los Angeles Regional FoodBank. And as a regular volunteer in Pomona, Johnson knew of the need for a food bank in the area. With his skills and knowledge, he was in a perfect position to help supply meet demand.
Johnson worked with leaders of Pomona Weed & Seed, which aims to reduce crime, drug abuse and gang activity, in identifying how and from whom they could get donations. He also collaborated with the Greek advisor on campus in transporting and distributing the cans.
“For me, this was just a crazy idea I had. I never thought it would get to the point where it has. It’s ballooned in a way that’s amazing,” he says. “What I want to do is community nutrition. Cal Poly Pomona gave me the opportunity to go out and do it. You get the classroom knowledge, but the real world is where you make it happen.”
It’s not unusual to find students and faculty at Cal Poly Pomona who are dedicated to helping their surrounding community. Johnson’s food bank project is a perfect example of the power of community engagement and service learning in education at the university, Kessler says.
“The community nutrition course that I teach has a service-learning component, and students often enjoy the experience so much that they continue to volunteer even after the course has ended. However, Darren took his experience to a wonderful new level by instituting a permanent change to sustain and fulfill a community need,” she says. “Part of the success of this community experience also should be credited to Armando Lopez and Jackie Briseno, leaders of the Weed & Seed Program, who welcomed and guided our students.”
The food bank not only helps Pomona residents, it also showed the campus fraternities and sororities that their donations make a difference. Last year, students gave 6,000 cans, and about 6,500 were collected this year. “As a Greek, I love being able to see when my work directly helps the community,” Johnson says. “This is our community. As students here, we should take some ownership.”
The canned food drive experienced a few bumps along the road. Of the 6,000 cans collected last year, about 200 were black olives. But a year later, more than half of the olives were still sitting on the store room shelves. “The community is 80 percent Latino. Olives just aren’t used in traditional Mexican cuisine,” Johnson says.
Johnson put his classroom knowledge to work and came up some creative and delicious ways to use the olives. He plans to continue working with Weed & Seed on another big project – developing and launching a hot-meal service at the Renacimiento Community Center.
Johnson hopes to work in public health education after graduation, helping people access healthful foods and learn how to improve their quality of life through nutrition. But no one should wait until after college to start helping people, he says.
“The best thing I learned from Cal Poly Pomona is to go out there and make something happen. Don’t just wait until you graduate.”