Waynesburg University and CMU partner to battle rural food insecurity

Carnegie Mellon University, located in the heart of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recently started working with Waynesburg University on the foundation of a universal service accomplishment. Through the partnership, the two schools focus on conquering food insecurity in rural areas — more specifically, Greene County, Pennsylvania.

“It’s the notion of looking at a large university that’s world class in research [and] development, and then a world class liberal arts institution like Waynesburg,” President Douglas Lee said. “It’s having a real impact on the community through service and the programs we offer.”

Earlier this spring, four instructors from Waynesburg University and Carnegie Mellon University, including the CEO and co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, Leah Lizarondo, taught a one-credit “micro” course on the issue. Ten students from each university worked  towards addressing the issue, then proposed possible solutions to the commissioners and the Greene County Food Security Partnership for implementation.

Stacey Brodak, vice president for institutional advancement and university relations has a major hand in the partnership, with the launching of the university’s Chevron Center for Corporate Social Responsibility.

“The model that we have of the collaborative approach between two complimentary universities is really interesting,” Brodak said. “I think it’s a dynamic way to help address problems in our community, and I think it’s beneficial to both institutions.”

Brodak said they are unsure if their possible solutions have been implemented by the county just yet, but numerous suggestions have been proposed as a result.

Along with intergenerational poverty and nutrition, transportation and broadband connection are two major issues that directly cause food insecurity, especially in rural areas. The comprehensive plan for Greene County, updated in 2018, identified sufficient broadband access as the biggest issue across the county.

Rural transportation is more scarce than public transportation in urban communities. The Department of Energy awarded a grant to Waynesburg University and Carnegie Mellon University to help study the issue of rural transportation.

President Lee describes this conquest to end food insecurity as having “national consequences” and extending far past the limits of Greene County or Allegheny County, as these solutions could impact rural communities across the country.

“They may get access to food, but it may be the convenience store up the road, and it may be a bag of potato chips instead of nutritional food. That’s food insecurity,” Lee said during a recent news conference.

One of the four instructors, Rick Stafford, a distinguished service professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief of staff for Gov. Thornberg, recognizes the importance of fighting food insecurity and getting his students in Pittsburgh involved.

“[Rural issues] don’t affect our students as much. Food insecurity — and this is certainly something both Waynesburg students and CMU students carried away for sure — it exists in urban areas, it exists in rural communities. It’s there, in a big way,” Stafford said. 

Stafford, a Waynesburg native, wants support for his hometown and county and describes the restricting factors of transportation and communication as “enablers” to food insecurity.

“It’s extraordinarily gratifying to work on something that relates to my hometown,” Stafford said. “I never lost contact with Greene County throughout my career … With my public official and economic development background, I’ve always tried to reach out and make sure that my hometown and home county were included.”

He also emphasizes how infrastructure issues impact aspects of the community, such as healthcare, employment, entertainment and others.

“That idea of experiencing other places and other situations and other cultures should be a fundamental part of your university experience,” Stafford said. “So what’s really neat about this is that Waynesburg University students had a chance to come to CMU [and vice-versa], and we need to do more of that.”

Dr. Melinda Walls, chair for entrepreneurial leadership at Waynesburg University, suggested the idea of rural food insecurity to Stafford and served as one of the instructors for the micro course.

“She [Walls] took the list of potential solutions, and I think her class was working through those,” Brodak said. “The agencies we work with, we provided numerous suggestions for them that they could implement.”

There is optimism  from both ends for the future of the partnership.

“I have to be honest, I think it’s endless where this could go,” Brodak said. “I think that it will go wherever the student and faculty and community interest will take it. I really believe there’s enough interest from CMU and there’s enough attention to this right now on some of the issues and challenges.”