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The Scarlet & Black

Dining Hall meal bags find a second purpose at MICA

The Midwest Iowa Community Action center in Poweshiek County, where Anushka Kulshreshtha ’21 has been dropping off D-Hall meal bags for reuse. Photo by Andrew Tucker.

“When I started to see all of my bags piled up, it didn’t really surprise me,” Anushka Kulshreshtha ’21 said. With Dining Services handing out plastic bags for every meal served they served to on-campus students, 20 times a week, the bags start to take up space. “I had this laundry bag that I had been filling them in and it had gotten to the point where it was overflowed.”

Kulshreshtha wasn’t always a bag collector. Her collection started after August’s derecho tore through Iowa and Dining Services began distributing meals inside the JRC. Before the derecho, Dining Hall workers would bring meals outside and students were able to bring personal bags to put the food in. When distribution moved inside, Kulshreshtha said that it was deemed unsanitary to allow students to bring in their own bags, and every on-campus student now receives their meals in Dining-provided single-use bags.

Kulshreshtha said that the bags were too nice to throw away – she described them as “fancy store paper bags that you get when you buy jewelry” – and, though they are recyclable, she thought they should be reused. The problem was, she couldn’t use all 93 of the bags that had accumulated in her room.

Then, Kulshreshtha heard from a Dining Hall worker that Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) would take the bags as donations. She filled a trash bag full of the Dining Hall bags and carried it over to MICA’s facility in downtown Grinnell, located next to Candyland Station. “The one time that I went there, someone came out and … I just handed them the stuff.”

The person who came out to meet Kulshreshtha was Jake Conran, a 2020 alum that now works at MICA. Conran started working at MICA over the summer after his work with the Peace Corps in Morocco was canceled due to COVID-19. He remembers that Kulshreshtha called him during work hours one day to ask about bag donations. After her call, MICA received multiple garbage bags full of bags from on-campus students.

A Dining Hall meal bag. Photo contributed by Anushka Kulshreshtha

MICA is a nonprofit organization that supports families in poverty. They receive donations of toys, food, personal hygiene products and now Dining Hall bags as well. The Food Distribution Center in Grinnell provides food to approximately 20 families every week and the bags are used to deliver these supplies to them.

“We pack up everything in those bags and I wheel them out to give them to people,” Conran said. MICA tends to use 200 bags in a week. Conran has to double-bag each group of food he distributes, and he asks that any students donating Dining Hall bags double-bag their donations before they drop them off.

“I go through them really quick, but [the donations are] really sporadic. I’ll have a ton at some point and none at others.” Conran said that there are times when their bag supply is very low. “I worry about running out, but it hasn’t come to that yet.”

Conran said that he does not have a sanitization process for the bags that are donated. WebMD reports that it is highly unlikely that someone will catch COVID-19 from an object held by an infected person, and that the chance of transmission through surfaces has been exaggerated.

Kulshreshtha said she is interested in having a system to donate the used bags to MICA each week, but she was not able to find much interest after asking in a student Facebook group. Kulshreshtha said that she does not have the time and energy to commit to being the sole organizer for a collection program, but at the same time, she said that she wants there to be a large-scale collection to reduce the waste on one-time use bags. “If there were other people who were willing to be a part of it and had a car, then I would be happy to manage the people part of it.”

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