Grace Contino gives back to the community and the environment as Elon’s sustainability intern

Through this internship position, Contino has worked behind the scenes for both Campus Kitchen and Elon Dining, putting together various initiatives for the Elon community. Here's her story.

As sustainability intern for Campus Kitchen, Grace Contino ’22 is helping guide service opportunities and researching educational components for the program’s initiatives.

The Campus Kitchen at Elon University (CKEU) is an on-campus service opportunity offered to Elon students and staff through the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement. Alongside Elon Dining services, Campus Kitchen collects unserved food from various partners for volunteers to prepare and deliver to those in the Burlington community who are in need of food.

Contino works for Caroline Redick, sustainability coordinator for Elon Dining. Reddick recently organized a collaboration between Campus Kitchen and Elon Dining. This is the collaboration that made this year’s reusable to go boxes possible, which was an effort to help reduce waste on campus. This collaboration also allows Contino to spend half of her internship position working with Campus Kitchen and the other half working with Elon Dining. Part of her position includes conducting research for the events that Elon dining hosts throughout the year, like their week of “plant forward”-themed meals.

“We did some research on recipes and also an educational component to tell people why eating plant forward means not exclusively vegetarian, but it means like, plant forward as in you need like more vegetables to lower your carbon footprint, so you’re consuming less meat,” Contino said.

Contino said this is actually her favorite part of the job. With events like the “plant forward”-themed meals, Contino and Redick often organize cart displays so Elon students can not only see where their food is coming from, but also see how it impacts the environment. For one of these events, Contino researched the land use, water use and carbon footprint of different types of milk. Elon students then got to try the milk and visually see on a graph the impacts each milk type has on the environment.

“We had an activity where they had to figure out or guess which milk resulted in which impact,” Contino said. “It was cool to see how people thought one thing but it was actually another and so then you have the educational component where you can tell them about why that is.”

In addition to her research and hosting activities to educate her peers on various topics concerning sustainability, Contino spends her time working with Campus Kitchen exclusively during the cooking shift. With this, Contino has learned sustainable cooking practices and proper safety protocols. This way, when volunteers come to Campus Kitchen to cook and prep meals before they are delivered to the community, Contino can assist the volunteers and answer their questions about the types of people the food is going to and what those organizations do.

“It’s connecting. I think it connects the students with their communities, so they get out of the ‘Elon bubble,’ so to speak,” Contino said. “It’s really great for students to learn about how food is grown, but also what it means to provide one free meal to a group of people once a week — what that means for them and how that impacts their community.”

Prior to beginning her internship, Contino helped with hurricane relief efforts last year through Elon Volunteers! After Hurricane Florence hit, she went to Fayetteville to help package meals for those in need. While Contino had previous experiences with Elon Volunteers! and the Kernodle Center, this internship was her first exposure to Campus Kitchen. Contino said this experience has completely transformed her idea of not only what Campus Kitchen is, but also what sustainability really means for the environment.

“I just like love that I’m able to like make connections with where my food comes from before I put it in my mouth, because I feel like people today are really disconnected from that,” Contino said.

This position has reminded Contino that serving a campus is a much bigger operation than most people realize.

“I didn’t fully have a grasp on how big a scale it is to do this full operation,” Contino said. “Talking to the chefs actually in the back is really cool, talking about the type of work they do and they’re real people. They serve you food behind a barrier, but everyone who works for Elon Dining is a real person.”

More recently, under the collaboration of Campus Kitchen and Elon Dining, Contino has worked on a “reduce, reuse, recaffeinate” initiative. This means that now all on-campus coffee shops except for Irazu will give you a 30-cent discount if you bring your own reusable mug for coffee. She has also worked on a project to reduce the sugar intake of Elon students by exchanging offerings from the soda machines in the various dining halls with sweet teas, lemonade, juice, Powerade, and other drinks with less sugar.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Campus Kitchen upon returning to campus should sign up for the Kernodle Center emails. Volunteers can choose to help with any of the following shifts: cooking alongside Elon Dining staff in the Lakeside Kitchen, delivering meals to Allied Churches of Alamance County and food resourcing at Elon’s Loy Farm.

Volunteers go out to the farm on Sunday, cook the meals on Tuesday night and deliver them to the community on Wednesday mornings.