Students Put Principles into Practice at Midwest Food Bank
Nov. 13, 2020
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. —This Thanksgiving, holiday meals will be provided to roughly 2,500 McLean County families
in need thanks in part to the hard work and generous spirit of Illinois Wesleyan University’s
Profession of Social Work class, which partnered this semester with Midwest Food Bank to help support the annual “Big Give” food drive, along with other community initiatives.
Each year, Midwest Food Bank, a faith-based organization dedicated to addressing poverty
and food insecurity, packages thousands of Thanksgiving meals and distributes them
to families throughout McLean County. However, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted
the food bank’s ability to recruit volunteers, many of whom are typically of retirement
age. Additional hands were necessary to collect, sort, package and distribute food
for the “Big Give,” in preparation for “Operation Give Thanks.”
Meanwhile, Adjunct Instructor in Sociology Emily Barr also faced challenges when rethinking her Profession of Social Work class
amid the pandemic. Barr knew that inviting in-person guest speakers and assigning
the usual 12 hours of individual volunteer work wouldn’t be viable this year, but
also knew that an online class wouldn’t allow for the kind of experiential learning
necessary to truly understand the field of social work.
“I know I’m old school, there’s no substitute for just going out and doing it,” said
Barr. “Face-to-face, being in the community, outside the classroom, and getting a
feel for what this is all about and how much each individual can do, but especially
how much you can do as a class or more people.”
When Barr decided to make this year’s class center around the application of social
work in the community, she wanted to address the rise in food insecurity as a result
of the pandemic, which led her to contact Midwest Food Bank about the possibility
of a partnership.
“This was a unique proposal as we have not had a class interested in engaging with
us throughout an entire semester,” said Tara Ingham, executive director of Midwest
Food Bank. “We quickly learned that this arrangement was a win-win solution. Her students
were able to see firsthand what running a nonprofit is like, while we gained the students'
help with many different endeavors that benefit the communities we serve.”
Each Tuesday and Thursday throughout the fall semester, instead of walking to class
or logging onto a virtual Zoom call, students donned their masks and drove to the
Midwest Food Bank warehouse in Normal, Illinois, which served as both their socially-distanced
classroom and their field site. After a discussion of foundational principles in social
work, the students put those principles into practice through projects that encapsulated
everything it takes to maintain a successful non-profit organization. Running a food
drive at Illinois Wesleyan to support the “Big Give,” packaging relief boxes, writing
newsletter articles and researching food insecurity in the community were just a few
of the real-world skills that IWU students learned through this partnership.
“My experience with Midwest Food Bank allowed me to take the first step into social
work and to see how a structured system works within the field,” said Landria Tran
’22, an interdisciplinary education studies major looking to apply social work principles
within the field of education.
“From an educational standpoint, I learned that when working with social systems,
we must understand why we carry out a mission or message. To form a developed understanding,
we must learn that it starts with the community.”
The importance of community to Illinois Wesleyan students came as no surprise to Barr,
who understood from previous years that the community service aspect of her course
resonated with students the most. “Hands down, every time students have evaluated
the experience, what they’ve told me is that this is the most valuable learning experience
that they come away with, being able to go out and actually do something in the community
with an organization.”
The opportunity to watch her students grow in their knowledge and passion for social
work while simultaneously making a difference through the “Big Give” and other Midwest
Food Bank projects gives Barr continued hope for the future of her field and humanity.
“Being in this field, I’m always inspired by the students, every semester,” she reflected.
“I marvel at how committed to social causes these students are. They are extremely
positive about helping somebody else and doing it out in the community. They enjoy
doing that, and I hope they continue doing that.”