One grilled cheese sandwich at a time


It sounds like a tall order, maybe youthful idealism gone overboard. But after you try one, made from locally baked Burlington bread and cheese from nearby Shelburne Farms, the wildly unrealistic begins to seem possible.

Katherine Layton, the business manager of the English Department at UVM, is a fan. She tries to limit her consumption of the tasty sandwiches to one every two weeks. The homemade cheese is delicious - too bad about all those calories that come with it. But the cause is good, and at $4 a sandwich, the price is right, she said.

You do have to wait a little bit while your sandwich is made-to-order - you can get them with an assortment of toppings that include salsa, pesto, spinach, tomatoes, onions, peppers, avocados and pasta sauce. It can take up to 15 minutes, "but it's worth the wait," Layton said.

For four hours each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday the club sets up its sales kiosk in a corridor underneath the college's new Davis Student Center during lunch time, serving up sandwiches to hungry passers by. Eighty to 100 sandwiches is a typical day's business. The customers may get a message along with their tin-foiled wrapped meal - 100 percent of FeelGood's proceeds go to

The Hunger Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to alleviate chronic hunger around the globe.

Only $8 - the equivalent of two FeelGood sandwiches - is required to keep one person from chronic persistent hunger for a year, according to The Hunger Project.

There are 23 FeelGood chapters at college campuses around the country - some of them major institutions like Oregon State University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Utah. But the UVM campus has raised more funds than any other chapter - more than $109,000 over the past five years since the club got started. That's a sizable chunk of all the money raised by the FeelGood chapters combined, which comes to about $850,000, according to The Hunger Project.

Part of why UVM's chapter has been so successful is that almost alone among the various Feel Good Clubs, they have negotiated free donations of the ingredients that go into their sandwiches.

They get bread from local bakeries such as Klinger's and the Red Hen Baking Company, cheese from Shelburne Farms, Grafton Cheese and vegetables in season from the UVM Common Ground Farm. Others who helped out along the way - Ben and Jerry's donated ice cream for the club's big fund-raiser, a concert held each spring. Add in the sweat equity of the student club members, and the "administrative costs" drop to virtually zero - and 100 percent of the income can be sent to The Hunger Project.

It all started because of a Phish concert, said Kristin Walter, then a student at the University of Texas, who founded Feel Good with her friend Talis Apud in 2005.

Joseph Herr, then her boyfriend, now her husband was an undergraduate at UVM and they both wanted to figure out a way to help The Hunger Project. Herr had enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich at a Phish and he suggested to Walter that they try their hand at making those and selling them, she said.

After all, she said, how hard is grilling cheese on slices of bread?

"We started just by giving them away, and wound up raising $60," she said. "We were so excited."

Pumped up by that experience, Walter kept at it after Herr returned to UVM, and eventually raised $10,000 at the University of Texas that year.

Meanwhile, back in Burlington, the FeelGood seed sprouted as well, and UVM became the second site of FeelGood, getting started in similarly humble fashion, at a spring concert on campus in 2005.

The nascent club raised about $1,000 at that year's Springfest, but it wasn't until the following fall that things began to get rolling.

At the time, the club made its quarters in the basement of the Billings Student Center and served sandwiches one day a week. That's when Jamie Sieffer, then a freshman, got involved.

"I just walked by one day and got a sandwich and someone told me about it and I said, 'hey, that sounds cool,' and pretty soon I was totally into it," he said. "The mission seemed great, really sustainable and a good way to meet people at UVM. From a business standpoint, you got to meet different people in the community - we have all kinds of relationships with bakers and cheese makers."

What then exactly, is that mission?

When most people think of world hunger, they may think of it in terms of famine - an outbreak of hunger and starvation that grows out of crop failure or natural disasters. But The Hunger Project, which was founded in 1977, attempts to treat chronic hunger; the ongoing, fact-of-life deprivation of adequate amounts of food that are the part of daily life for people in certain parts of the world, said Jim Goodman, one of the project's regional directors.

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"Ninety-two percent of the people who die from hunger in the world are dying in a state of chronic malnutrition," he said. "They simply succumb to the flu, or diphtheria - they are rendered susceptible to that because they are chronically malnourished."

Research conducted by the United Nations shows that 20,000 people die of chronic malnutrition daily, and 75 percent of those are children less than 5 years-old. More than one billion people around the world are victims of chronic malnutrition, a number has increased in recent years after a period of gradual improvement.

"These people live on less than $1 a day; half the world's people live on $2 a day," he said. "It's a different kind of hunger (from famine) and it's not susceptible to the same kinds of remedies."

The obvious solution to famine lies in delivering large amounts of food to the stricken location as quickly as possible, but chronic endemic hunger grows out of other causes. Fashioning a response that seeks a long term solution is more complex, he said.

The Hunger Project presently works in 11 countries, primarily in south Asia, where the largest number of chronically malnourished people live. Despite its recent emergence as a global economic power, India remains the country with the most number of hungry people; neighbors such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh are also populated with lots of malnourished citizens. So are other parts of Africa and South America. It's largely a rural phenomenon, he said.

But the answer isn't to simply dole out the food aid and hope for the best. The Hunger Project sees its food recipients as full-time players in their own recovery, he said.

Where you find chronic hunger, you also find a systemic breakdown of support services such as a lack of clean water and modern sanitation, illiteracy and a lack of access to healthcare.

Overcoming those conditions takes time, and they need to be managed by the locals themselves, he said.

A country director - who's from the country being helped along - recruits a team of volunteers (also nationals of that particular country), and they go to work, Goodman said.

A key factor in any successful overcoming of chronic malnutrition is the elevation of the role of women in the society being assisted, he said.

The severe subjugation of women in the developing world is the single greatest factor keeping hunger in place, he said.

"What we've seen is that when women are given voices in their lives or are educated or given micro finance loans to start businesses, all sorts of good things start to happen," he said.

The Hunger Project's model is a five year program - by that point, a community should be able to stand on its own and feed itself adequately, he said.

But it all costs money, and while the bulk of their resources comes from other sources of philanthropy, the revenue contributed by the FeelGood Clubs is important. Maybe more importantly, FeelGood chapters are The Hunger Project's largest form of exposure on college campuses right now, he said..

A family friend of Kristin Walter's introduced her to The Hunger Project. She and her college friend Apud now run FeelGood as a California-based non-profit organization, Goodman said.

UVM is FeelGood's flagship campus in terms of fund-raising. So how does a relatively small school in a small state punch so much above its weight?

The success of the club, five years since its founding, is due to several factors, said Jade Christie- Maples, a senior from Hartland, Vt.

"We have a huge vehicle here," she said. "UVM is so supportive of an organization like us; Burlington as well. People are interested and that's why we've been able to grow so much."

The club tends to attract people who are motivated, she said. "People ask us about it and we believe world hunger can be eradicated in our lifetime," she said. "It's very possible and we're doing it because of volunteers."

Other club members have been attracted because they say they want to make a difference. "I think it's safe to say there's a level of social consciousness at UVM among students that isn't found at every campus," added Katie Sacks, of Ottawa, Canada, but originally from New Jersey.

"I think everyone seems to be more aware and concerned about things like the environment and I think it's a liberal view of the world. I think we're also lucky to be in the cheese and bread capital of the country and we have amazing donations coming in where other schools have to buy bread; our grilled cheese sandwiches practically sell themselves."


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