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Ole Miss Grad Student Organizes "Food For Oxford"

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nothing says “summer’s here” like overflowing dumpsters in the parking lots of Oxford’s apartment complexes. Before students can fully celebrate their summertime freedom, they often throw out anything they can do without in next year’s lease—squeaky futons, broken lamps, and food that they never got around to eating.
Julie LaBerge, a second year graduate student, decided to seize the opportunity to collect unused food items from moving-out students after she threw away two garbage bags of unopened food during move out in July 2015. LaBerge named the project, “Food for Oxford,” which will have three collection sites—The Retreat, The Connection and Highland Square.
“When I moved out, I was running around trying to find somewhere to donate it, but I just couldn’t,” LaBerge said. “I was Googling on my phone, and I just could not find anything. It should not be that hard, so we want to make it easy to be able to donate food that would otherwise be thrown away.”
LaBerge started planning the collection during her Thanksgiving and Christmas break of 2017, she said. After she began researching and planning, she learned that summertime is the hardest season for food pantry collection.
“During Thanksgiving and Christmas, people are in the giving spirit, but every summer, they really struggle to keep the pantry stocked for those who depend on it,” LaBerge said. “People just don’t think about it as much in the summertime.”
John Kohne, director of food distribution for Oxford’s Pantry, said he is excited about Food for Oxford’s drive because it will, in fact, take place when The Pantry needs it most.
“It’s very true that compassion and giving peak in September through December, and then it falls off- not just in Lafayette county, but across the US,” Kohne said.
Kohne said that The Pantry serves 500 families a month, and 13,000 to 15,000 people a year. He explained that The Pantry has three main inventory sources- the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis, the Mississippi Food Network in Jackson and donations from the community.
“From January to May, I don’t have a problem stocking The Pantry with food from resources like the larger food banks because resources are so abundant from the holiday season,” Kohne said. “But they start to dry up in May, so then we really have to rely on the community.”
Each month, one of 14 churches in Oxford is responsible for stocking The Pantry, and Kohne stressed his thankfulness for every church. He specifically thanked Community Church of Oxford, who has helped LaBerge get Food for Oxford off the ground.
“In my mind, there is no county in Mississippi like Lafayette County when it comes to giving hearts and taking care of their own,” Kohne said. “The church support is to be applauded because they always step up. They give during their month, but then they ask, ‘What else can we do?’”
Community Church is responsible for stocking the pantry in July, so when LaBerge approached Pastor Fish Robinson about further involvement, he jumped at the opportunity.
“As a pastor here in Oxford, if you talk to a family in the summertime, you almost always hear, ‘We’re headed to the beach,’ or ‘We’re going here,’” Robinson said. “It’s like Oxford shuts down in the summertime, but there are so many people who are still in need.”
Robinson said he “loves Julie’s heart” for the Oxford community, so the church has volunteered their trucks to move donations from the collection sites to The Pantry while helping to spread the word about the project.
“Being a church called ‘Community,’ we want to be a part of it in any way we can,” Robinson said. “It’s the perfect time to help when The Pantry is really in dire straights.”
The apartment complexes will be accepting donations the week leading up to Ole Miss’s graduation, May 7-13 and are asking for only unopened food items. The project is designed for moving-out students, but they will happily receive donations from anyone.
“We’re hoping that this gets people’s attention and just starts a conversation and brings awareness to the need,” LaBerge said. “When students are here, Oxford is their home, and we want to give them an opportunity to take care of it. Hopefully, it’ll just be a chain reaction, and that a difference will be made.”

By Sarah McCullen
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