On the Ridge

Finding Just and Creative Solutions to Ending Hunger in Niagara Falls

If the winners of the inaugural EntrepreNU competition achieve their goals, Niagara Falls’ food desert will become a lot more fertile.

The Community Kitchen, proposed by juniors Maggie Hempel, Mackenzie Kutzuba, and Victoria Swider, was selected as the best idea by a panel of judges during a Shark Tank inspired event that concluded the poverty-focused social entrepreneurship competition. The facility will provide a central location in the north end of Niagara Falls where local residents can purchase healthy food at an affordable cost and learn how to use it to make nutritious meals for themselves and their families.

The judges, Congressman Brian Higgins, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, Field & Fork Network Executive Director Lisa Tucker, Sodexo General Manager Deirdre Bartholomew, and prominent local businessman Craig Avery, chose the girls’ idea over those of two other student teams.

“We were very impressed by the ambition and hard work of all nine students who presented today,” noted Tucker. “At the end of the day, we felt that The Community Kitchen had the best chance of hitting the ground running.”

The competition began with a launch party in September, during which students were challenged to develop new, self-sustaining, innovative ways to bring high-quality, low-cost food to Niagara Falls residents living in “food deserts,” areas where people do not have adequate access to groceries.

Intrigued by the idea of social entrepreneurship, Maggie, Mackenzie, and Victoria attended the event to learn more about the competition guidelines. Encouraged by what they heard, the three decided to form a team.

Their idea developed during the fall semester. The girls attended discussions on poverty and access to healthy food, as well as a series of workshops on innovative thinking, and met with community members to learn more about the realities and challenges they confront to put healthy food on the table. After doing some additional research and finding a similar program in another state, the students decided to pursue the idea of a community kitchen.

Guided by the tagline “Access. Knowledge. Community,” and inspired by the popularity of cooking shows, the students created a business plan for a facility where people could buy fresh food and learn how to cook it so that they can prepare healthy meals at home.

“We wanted to teach people new, fun ways to cook foods that they normally wouldn’t know how to cook, in a nutritious manner,” Maggie explains.

The students knew that they were on the right track after Mackenzie and Victoria visited Heart, Love and Soul, a pantry, kitchen, and dining room in Niagara Falls, and saw a box full of lentils on the shelf. Sister Beth Brosmer, the organization’s director, told them that their guests don’t take the lentils because they don’t know how to cook them.

“That was what solidified the idea,” says Mackenzie. “We could show people how to make something that’s available to them, something healthy that they would want to eat, so they would know how to prepare it in the future.”

In December, the girls, along with approximately 100 other students from more than 30 teams, competed for a cash prize of $500 and the opportunity to make a final pitch to the community for startup funding. They were chosen as one of three finalists and, on March 30, the girls stood on stage in the Leary Theatre to give a 10-minute presentation and answer questions posed by the panel of judges. After the panelists deliberated, the girls were awarded a check for $10,000 in startup funds to begin implementing their plan.

Now that their idea has been selected, their real work lies ahead. The three are scouting locations where their teaching kitchen can be established, and hoping to partner with a community organization to mitigate costs and drive awareness.

“It’s going to be hard to get people to come initially,” Maggie admits. “It’s a barrier we have to break.”

They are also meeting with people who can help them develop a comprehensive business plan and those who might be interested in investing in their idea. To raise revenue in the meantime, Victoria notes that they may partner with an organization to set up a food stand.

“Even if the kitchen doesn’t come right away, we can get into the community and do a pop-up market,” she says. “We need to have a good solid income to get a chef and start the kitchen.”

The girls acknowledged that the challenge ahead is a bit intimidating, but that their efforts will be rewarded when the kitchen opens.

“That will be the best day of my life,” Mackenzie says.

Click here to view the students' video proposal.

For more about EntrepreNU, click here.