July 15, 2024

Students build mini food centers to feed hungry neighbors

Structures house refrigerators, shelves for food

Oregon High School ag construction students had a taste of what life would be like on a construction jobsite. Students traveled to Sterling, Illinois, to build a shelter that will house a mini free food center, including a refrigerator and freezer and pantry. Four of the mini food centers, each with a shelter built by the students, are now in operation in Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties.

OREGON, Ill. — Oregon High School students didn’t just learn framing and roofing in their ag construction class — they also learned about giving back and how hunger might be living right next door.

Seth McMillan’s class built four shelters that are serving as mini food centers, including frozen and refrigerated items, in communities in northern Illinois.

“When they approached me about doing this, I was like, heck, yes, we are going to do this,” the agriculture teacher said.

The project is part of a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the Ogle County Health Department received to focus on nutrition and food security.

The plan was to put mini food centers in communities throughout a four-county area that includes Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties.

“We live in northern Illinois and we can have four seasons in one day, so we knew that we needed to have shelters for the refrigerators. I reached out to Seth and gave him an idea of what we were looking for, structure-wise,” said Joyce Lewis, grant coordinator with the Ogle County Health Department.

“I told him this is your area of expertise, please build what is going to be sustainable and something that will hold together for years to come. He took the challenge on and he and his students put their hearts into it.”

McMillan, who worked in construction before going into ag education, had 19 students in his ag construction class. When Lewis contacted him in February about the mini food center plans, McMillan said yes.

“I am always looking for something that is hands-on and meaningful for the class to do,” he said.

Students from Seth McMillan’s ag construction class at Oregon High School built shelters for four mini food centers. The project was in coordination with the Ogle County Health Department through a $500,000 CDC grant.

The shelters are 4-by-8 feet. Inside each is a standard-sized refrigerator with a freezer compartment and shelves on the other side of the shelter.

The mini food centers are kept filled by the health department, as well as donations from the local community.

“From February through the end of the school year, that class was 100% dedicated to these buildings,” McMillan said.

Under his supervision, students built the shelters using lessons already learned as they developed new skills.

“It was a project that taught them a lot about how to put up a real building, in terms of framing and roofing and everything that goes into that,” McMillan said.

The students also gained some life lessons.

“This project fits into so many different areas, not only the classroom side, but the FFA side, the leadership, the community service, teaching kids to give back and to do something important with their lives. The project really fit into what the purpose of FFA is and the FFA motto,” McMillan said.

The four mini food centers were installed at sites in Amboy, Mount Carroll, Oregon and Sterling. The Sterling structure was built on site, providing students with knowledge of a working construction site.

“I took a group of seven students. Because of where it had to go, we assembled it on site. We were there for a day. I think the students learned a lot that day of what it’s like being in the field and on a job site,” McMillan said.

Knowing how the structures would be used added extra motivation for his students.

“We talked about what the project was for and the students knew that what they were doing was meaningful. That led to more cooperation and more engagement in the project,” McMillan said.

“They knew it was something important. It wasn’t like some class projects where you do it and it doesn’t go any further than the classroom.”

Students in the Oregon High School ag construction class had some hands-on learning about roofing, siding and framing as they assembled four wooden shelters that house mini free food centers. Seth McMillan’s 2023-2024 class had 19 students. The enrollment for 2024-2025 has more than doubled, with 45 students in the class, which will be split into two sections.

Lewis said the project has multiple goals, to provide fresh and nutritious food for the local communities via the mini food centers, but also to address stigma and misconceptions around food insecurity.

“Where a lot of misconception comes in is that people who are food insecure are hungry. That is not always the case. You can be food insecure and have food,” Lewis said.

“It just means that you don’t have the access and availability to fresh and nutritious food, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, if you live in a town that only has a convenience store.”

Another aim of the project is to educate the public on how common food insecurity is.

“We want to make sure that everybody realizes that everybody needs a hand up, not a hand out, but a hand up,” Lewis said.

“Sixty percent of people fall below that poverty line, at least once in their lifetimes, at least for a year. By giving people a hand up, we are helping them out.”

The project will continue and Lewis said the intent is to build and place more mini food centers in communities in the four-county area. The campaign to educate the public on food insecurity also will continue.

“We want to open people’s eyes to the fact that your neighbor may not seem like they need help. But nobody knows what is going on within the four walls of another person’s home,” Lewis said.

“They may be helping a family member out so now they themselves are struggling. Someone may have lost a job. We just don’t know.

“So, these pantries and fridges are working toward erasing the stigma of people being reluctant to look for help or ask for assistance.”

McMillan will have plenty of help in building the next round of structures.

“I had 19 students this past school year. Next year, the ag construction class grows to 45 students, so we will have two sections of ag construction,” he said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor