Courtney Bosse and Azia Gilbert: fighting hunger and food insecurity one meal at a time

Courtney Bosse of Limerick, Maine and Azia Gilbert of Biddeford, Maine have a passion for helping others. And it shows. Just show up to the Woodbury Campus Center on a Wednesday morning.

Over the past semester, the two graduating seniors have facilitated a weekly breakfast because, to put it simply, they don't want to see any of their fellow classmates go hungry.

The breakfast is just one of the programs put on through the Husky Hunger Initiative, the brainchild of Bosse and Gilbert. Through the creation of an on-campus food pantry, and by holding breakfasts and food distribution events, the duo has brought the issue of hunger and food insecurity to the forefront on campus.

In the four short months since its inception, the initiative has raised over $1,700. With the funds, the two expanded the first incarnation of the pantry -- a single shelf stocked with grab-and-go items located in USM's Wellness Resource Center in Portland, better known as "The Well" -- to include take-home meals and other essentials college students need to stay fueled. They have attained nonprofit status, collaborated with groups across campus, been invited to speak with a renowned food insecurity expert and even had an op-ed published in the Portland Press Herald on the fight against hunger.

And if it wasn't for a chance meeting at The Well, the Husky Hunger Initiative would have just remained an idea.

Gilbert, a Women and Gender Studies and English double major, had been bouncing around the idea of opening an on-campus food resource center for several semesters before meeting Bosse.

Heavily involved with The Well, Gilbert has always had a knack for giving back and taking care of others. Earlier in the fall, she organized several free clothing stores before scaling back to focus on the pantry.

"I tend to care a lot about fixing things," mentioned Gilbert.

Photo of the Husky Hunger Initiative food Pantry located in the well When Bosse, a Social Work major, accepted an internship with The Well, she and Gilbert started talking seriously about the idea for a food pantry. It was through their work in The Well that they learned about the Maine Hunger Dialogue. Held in November at the University of Maine in Orono, the Maine Hunger Dialogue brings together students and educational institutions from across the state to discuss the problem, learn new skills through workshops and provide tools to make an impact in their communities.

(Pictured above: the Husky Hunger Initiative food pantry located in The Well in the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland)

Collaborating and interacting with others who shared the same passion inspired the two to take action. The duo successfully applied for and won a $500 mini-grant, offered by the Maine Hunger Dialogue, to help launch their own initiative at USM.

But there was just one hiccup. Neither Bosse or Gilbert could accept the winnings without establishing themselves an official organization. They quickly took the steps to become a student group on-campus and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. By January 2016, the Husky Hunger Initiative was a reality.

Bosse couldn't believe how quickly things were moving. Originally, Husky Hunger Initiative was just her capstone project. It's become so much more to her -- and her peers.

"It's humbling and amazing to think that this little thing that started out with two people working on it, and as just a project that I had to get done to graduate," stated Bosse. "It's just blown up into this great thing. There are so many supporters ... it's hard to find words to describe the feeling."

And for Bosse, the issue of food insecurity hits close to home. Her family took advantage of local food pantries when she was younger, further fueling her desire to tackle the problem.

"I know the struggle from my own life," said Bosse. "To get something out of our education, we actually have to be focused on our education, and if we are going to class hungry, we can't really focus on what we're supposed to be learning."

Like Gilbert, Bosse loves helping others. It's why she enrolled in the School of Social Work in the first place. Growing up with a best friend in the foster care system, Bosse was always there to help. Her friend's story inspired her to attain a degree that would provide her with the tools to to make an impact in the lives of others.

"If I can be that one person in an individual's life that can make a difference, for even one day, then my job would be rewarding," Bosse mentioned.

After first taking classes at York County Community College (YCCC), Bosse transferred to USM and immediately fell in love with the Social Work program.

“It’s such a broad field. You can do a lot of work with a social work degree,” said Bosse. "I've loved every single one of my social work classes," she added proudly. 

Azia Gilbert stocks up the Husky Hunger Initiative supply closetGilbert originally began taking classes at USM in 2005. After taking some time off to discover her interests, she enrolled at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), where she earned an associates degree in English. She returned to USM to complete her bachelor's in 2014, but it was in one of her English theory classes where Gilbert was introduced to the program that set the course for the rest of her USM career.

(Pictured above: Azia Gilbert stocks theHusky Hunger Initiative supply closet located in the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland)

She remembers the moment Lisa Walker, director of Women and Gender Studies and an associate professor of English, came to guest lecture on feminist theory. From there, Gilbert was hooked.

"(Walker) had so much passion that I really wanted to take more classes in the Women and Gender Studies program."

So Gilbert began looking for classes cross-listed between both departments. The interdisciplinary nature of the program --- the weaving of multiple perspectives --- and the opportunity to make hands-on, real world change while still in the classroom was appealing.

"The more classes I took, the more passionate I felt," mentioned Gilbert. "It gave me more experience fixing things because I understood so much about the problem."

That experience, teamed with Bosse's internal call to help others, has helped the Husky Hunger Initiative grow as quickly as it has. And others have taken notice. The two have heard words of appreciation from students, faculty and staff. Some students have even reached out to Gilbert through her personal Facebook page to show their appreciation.

"I had noticed that people were taking food from the pantry, but I didn't realize it was making a difference in their life until they told me," she added.

The publishing of the op-ed penned by Bosse in the Press Herald plus a shout-out in Pres. Cumming's "Monday Missive," his weekly personal musings on all things USM, were exciting enough. But it wasn't until Dr. Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, a global leader in the fight to end food insecurity, invited the two for a personal conversation that they felt that "wow" moment.

Dr. Sibanda delivered the University of Maine School of Law's fifth annual Justice for Women Lecture back in March. During the conversation, she asked the two if there was a stigma around using the pantry. The two thought about it, and took steps to make the weekly breakfast and food distribution events more welcoming. They adjusted the wording on their display sign from "food pantry, take what you need" to simply "help yourself."

"Her suggestion helped a lot. It made people feel more comfortable," said Gilbert, who didn't relish the opportunity to learn from an expert in the fight against hunger.

"It was cool being to collaborate with someone as brilliant as she is."

The New Husky Hunger Initiative Help Yourself sign located on the pantryAfter speaking with Dr. Sibanda, Bosse and Gilbert have ridden a wave of momentum. Through campus-wide fundraising efforts, a GoFundMe page -- which received an anonymous $550 donation -- and the mini-grant from the Maine Hunger dialogue, the food pantry is fully stocked, and the Husky Hunger Imitative is ready to continue next year with a new team of dedicated leaders.

As Bosse and Gilbert get set to walk across the commencement stage, they can look back and reflect knowing they have made a difference. But each of them realize they couldn't have done it alone.

Bosse credits Paul Johnson, associate professor in the School of Social Work, who was inspired by his desire to see all of his students succeed. Also Sarah Holmes, assistant dean of students and Bosse's internship supervisor in The Well, for providing her with the support to take the initiative to the next level.

Gilbert thanks Walker for getting her invested in the program, Lucinda Cole, associate rofessor of English, for her "academically stimulating" courses, Wendy Chapkis, professor of Women and Gender Studies and Sociology, for teaching her to look at things critically, Bud McGrath, professor of English, for helping her appreciate theory and shaping her world view, Kathleen Wininger, associate professor of Philosophy and Women and Gender studies for her "eye-opening" classes and Heather Monroe for being an amazing mentor.

So, what's next for Bosse and Gilbert? Bosse will take some time off before applying to a Master of Social Work program. Gilbert has already accepted a position with the Portland Housing Authority through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. She hopes to then move on to a Depth Psychology graduate/doctoral program with a specialization in somatic studies.

In a short time, the Husky Hunger Initiative has brought the issue of food insecurity and hunger to the forefront thanks to the dedication and caring nature of Courtney Bosse and Azia Gilbert. Their desire to help their fellow students has made a real impact across the campus community, and has prepared them to make a real impact in the lives of others well after their college careers.

And for Gilbert, she's just excited that the program can continue to help students next year.

"Just knowing that it has support and that it's going to continue and that it has the resources that it needs is how I'm measuring success," stated Gilbert.

Hopefully it will help for many years to come.