The winner of Niagara University's first-ever poverty-focused social entrepreneurship competition is The Community Kitchen.
The student team of Maggie Hempel, Mackenzie Kutzuba and Victoria Swider were chosen by a panel of esteemed guest judges Monday afternoon to gain access to up to $10,000 in startup funds as part of EntrepreNU2015. The team will use the funds to commence implementation of its plan to provide food access and education to low-income residents in Niagara Falls.
Hempel, Kutzuba and Swider's proposal was chosen over that of two other student teams by a panel that included 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.
Each of the three finalists was allotted 10 minutes to explain a business pitch. That was followed by a Q&A session with the panelists. The teams were scored on a five-category rubric by the judges.
"We were very impressed by the ambition and hard work of all nine students who presented today," Tucker said moments before announcing the winner. "At the end of the day, we felt that The Community Kitchen had the best chance of hitting the ground running."
The Community Kitchen endeavors to provide a central location in the north end of Niagara Falls where local residents can purchase healthy food at a low cost, and also participate in demonstrations on how to prepare nutrient-rich meals. Swider said the group seeks to capitalize on the popularity of televised cooking shows. The layout of the facility would mimic the format of those seen on TV, with onsite kitchen setups.
The students, all juniors, explained they're willing to partner with an existing soup kitchen or food pantry to mitigate costs and drive awareness. Ideally, though, they would like to occupy a space that is currently vacant, such as the Niagara Community Center or a wing of the Doris Jones Family Resource Building on Ninth Street.
"A partnership with a group like the Niagara Falls Housing Authority would be ideal, because residents already know where it is and there are already people going there," Kutzuba said. "We'd have that built-in audience."
The team hopes to have initial components of The Community Kitchen operating by late summer or early fall.
Education was a theme in all three presentations. The students were intent on not only delivering the food to consumers living in "food deserts," but also teaching them how to preserve, prepare and, eventually, harvest it themselves.
ConnectU - Robert De Jaray, Andre Ware and Emily Palermo - presented an idea to transport farm-fresh produce to designated "hotspots" throughout the city. Meanwhile, a proposal from Matthew Lanning, James Lioi and Caralynne Shaffer, known collectively as O.A.S.I.S., called for the creation of a local farmer coop, commercial teaching kitchen and aquaponics fish farm.
The idea for EntrepreNU2015 came out of a Vincentian business ethics conference at DePaul University attended by NU professors Corey Bower and Kevin Blair. One of the conference's presenters decried the lack of a poverty focus in academic curricula.
"Open up a business curriculum at just about any university and you will not find any courses that directly address poverty," noted Blair, a social work professor at NU. "Some will offer classes on social entrepreneurship, but there are little to no courses that study issues directly related to solving poverty."
Drs. Bower and Blair returned to Niagara with the determination to launch a project-based learning program that incorporates teamwork and takes aim at one of Niagara Falls' most glaring problems: food access. According to a recent community report commissioned by The John R. Oishei Foundation, approximately 15 percent of the city's most vulnerable residents have urgent concerns around food. Parts of Niagara Falls have been designated as a food desert, or an area where people do not have adequate access to groceries.
The two professors brought on Dr. David Taylor, director of the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute of Civic Engagement, and the pilot project was established - with university funding.
Despite this being the first year of the competition, more than 100 students registered to form more than 30 different teams.
Throughout the process, students received assistance on how to develop a basic business plan and put together a convincing business pitch. As part of the final submission, teams prepared a brief video, a concept paper and a modified business plan canvas.
The students involved in EntrepreNU2015 took on a challenge, Blair said, that major retailers like Walmart have been unable to tackle: how to bring high-quality, low-cost food to people lacking transportation.
Bower, an assistant professor of leadership and policy, said failure is bound to happen.
"What's emerging in educational research is that people cannot learn without having the opportunity to fail," he said. "This is an opportunity - presenting ideas in front of a congressman and mayor while still in college - that you'll never forget. This could be the start of a great thing for this university, some of the students we have here and, of course, the Western New York area in general."
To learn more about Niagara University, visit www.niagara.edu.