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REACH Project, A&M Foundation provide food to dining workers

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Single mother Erica Pineda, a cashier and barista at Einstein Bros. Bagels on Texas A&M’s campus, drove away from campus Monday night with a free package of food for her family. 

Pineda is one of about 375 dining service workers on A&M’s campus who was furloughed as the fall semester ended. She is also one of 200 people to receive a care package of meat from Texas A&M’s Rosenthal Meat Center on Monday. The evening distribution event at the school’s Fan Field Parking Lot was part of a collaborative effort between the nonprofit REACH Project and the Texas A&M Foundation. 

The hundreds of recipients were selected by The REACH Project, which aims to serve custodial, dining and other support staff from A&M. Founder Max Gerall said that REACH gives away food every week through the Brazos Valley Food Bank. But Monday evening’s event with the A&M Foundation was a new type of partnership, and mainly benefited dining service workers whose employment was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pineda said she was sent home on Nov. 24 and is scheduled to return to work on Jan. 20. It’s not a new experience for Pineda, who said she has worked in on-campus dining for more than a decade. But she said it’s still a challenge that requires careful saving and taking advantage of resources like Monday’s food distribution event. 

Receiving the care packages and knowing her sons will have a hot meal means a lot to her, Pineda said. 

“You sit back and you worry about how you’re going to feed your kids if you’re not having that income and you’re not getting up and going to work in the morning,” she said. “Receiving that really warms my heart, knowing that there’s people out there that donate and worry about other people going through stuff like this. You think you’re not appreciated sometimes, but then things like this happen.”  

Chartwells, A&M’s contracted food service provider, furloughs employees every winter and summer when classes end, the company’s District Marketing Manager Stephanie Denson said in an interview last week. She said the workers are all considered seasonal employees. 

Prior to the pandemic, she said there were about 1,000 dining service employees under Chartwells at the flagship campus, but during this fall semester there were 375. She said there were fewer workers largely because there were not as many people on campus since many students opted for online courses. Chartwells plans to bring back all 375 dining employees in the spring, Denson said. 

Gerall said that each of the 200 packages distributed Monday contained enough food for four to six people. Recipients had a choice between a box of red meat or pork.

Several REACH volunteers and A&M Foundation employees passed out food. Gerall said he was happy to see some bring their families and children to help out.

“I know our families, especially now, are in high need,” Gerall said of the recipients. “We’re giving them good quality food for free. That’s awesome, especially during the holiday time.” 

The money that the A&M Foundation used to purchase the meat from Texas A&M’s Rosenthal Meat Center is what the Foundation normally uses for an employee holiday party at the end of the year, A&M Foundation Vice President of Engagement Tom Pool said. In total, the care packages cost about $8,000, A&M Foundation Business Operations Manager Rori Brownlow said. 

“A lot of folks are either out of work or they’re underemployed right now,” Pool said. “This is an opportunity to take care of them, because they take care of us here on campus every day. This is the least we could do.”

Being part of the distribution was a fulfilling experience, Foundation President Tyson Voelkel said. 

“These people care about A&M,” Voelkel said about the recipients. “They care about this university. You see it in the work they do when you’re on campus. And in a very small way, this is a nice way for us to thank them and let them know that we notice.”

Virginia Murphy, a grill cook at A&M, was furloughed Nov. 25 and will return to work Jan. 10. She said she is grateful for the food she was able to get at Monday’s event. 

“It’s a real blessing,” she said. 

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