ATLANTIC CITY — Rona Whitehead pulled the van into the Sunset Inn motel on Route 30 and went to check in with the manager while Stockton University student Liz Alexander, 21, of Wrightstown, unloaded a huge insulated bag.
A couple of motel room doors were open, and Whitehead and Alexander approached, asking the occupants if they’d like a free meal.
No one turned them down, and the pair distributed plastic grocery bags containing tuna noodle casserole in a microwaveable container, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and a fruit cup. If a family received a few more meals than they had members, that was just fine.
Extra bags were left in the office for residents who work, and as the two women prepared to leave, a woman leaned out of her doorway to thank them again.
“We’ll see you next week,” Whitehead said, and that is probably true. The motel is their home.
The meals are provided by the local Campus Kitchen Project, a national community service project to feed the hungry that operates at 53 colleges. The local program is a partnership among Stockton University, Atlantic City High School and its food service provider Sodexo.
For high school chef Tiffany Bassey, who cooks the Campus Kitchen meals, the mystery box of food she gets on Mondays from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey Southern Branch is like an episode of the Food Network show “Chopped.”
“I use what they give me,” she said. “Today we have lots of tuna and pasta. I used the mac and cheese sauce and stuffing mix.”
The result was a tuna noodle casserole, that week’s hot dish.
Now in its seventh year, Campus Kitchen student volunteers prepare and deliver weekly hot meals to more than 50 struggling families in Atlantic City.
“It’s still going strong,” said Merydawilda Colon, of the Center for Student Engagement at Stockton, which supervises the program. “We still get calls about families who need help.”
Meals depend on what the Food Bank provides. Bassey has cooked huge batches of ziti and meat sauce and stir-fry chicken with rice. If she can get some beef tips, she’ll do a stroganoff, tapping the Sodexo supplies for what the box lacks.
“I get a lot of pasta, but I don’t want to pasta the families to death,” she said. “I try to challenge myself.”
High school students typically start the meal prep, making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread until they ran out, and learning to use the industrial can opener on huge cans of fruit.
Atlantic City High School teacher Dawn Bonnell said about a dozen students participate, including a couple who are in their fourth year.
“I wanted to do something that gives back,” said Itza Garcia, 15, as she and Ajra Jabin, 15, both of Atlantic City, filled a hundred small cups with fruit.
Student volunteers said they like doing something that has an immediate and tangible impact. Whitehead, a former Activist in Residence at Stockton, said she had a student participate who had never been in Atlantic City.
The cooking is done on Monday. On Tuesday students pack it up, and Stockton students deliver it to families the school district has helped identify. On this day, they are short a few sandwiches because the bread ran out, but they have extra fruit cups, so they double up.
On the way back to the high school, Whitehead stopped to deliver a meal they had saved for a homeless man they spotted along the road on their way to the motel. Alexander hopped out to deliver the bag and returned somber.
“He started to cry,” she said.