As Ana Carolina Costa walked into the Office of Multicultural Student Support and Success at Keene State College Tuesday afternoon, the excitement was obvious on her face.
The junior transfer student and her friends beelined it to the corner of the room, where a couple of wooden crates were stacked with goodies from around the world, such as Goya sofrito, fresh plantains and Pocky biscuit sticks, to name a few.
“This alone has been like everything to me,” Costa said as she cracked open a can of Guaraná Antarctica, a soft drink from Brazil, where her family is from. “It just feels like a piece of home right here.”
The soda was one of about 100 items dropped off Tuesday at the new international food pantry on campus, which is supported by a fledgling local nonprofit organization called The Daily Good. According to founders Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace of Keene, their goal is for the pantry to be a welcoming gesture for students of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Wallace and Neil Wallace are local authors who’ve written several books together, such as “Blood Brother,” which chronicles the story of Keene civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, and “First Generation,” which highlights “trailblazing” immigrants and refugees in the U.S., according to their websites.
The couple said they began delivering international foods to the campus last month as The Daily Good’s first initiative.
“The books we’ve been writing are really about activists, about people in social justice,” Wallace said. “We’ve been writing that, and we felt like that was a strong contribution, but then we said, what are we doing personally to make people feel more welcome in this community?”
For Neil Wallace, a Toronto native who grew up in a Ukrainian-Yugoslavian household, food seemed like a natural conduit for fostering those connections. Her family faced discrimination when she was growing up, she said, which made it necessary to assimilate by leaving behind their traditional cultural foods.
But today, “we know better,” she said.
“It’s not a stereotype to say that food and breaking bread with people breaks barriers, and there’s just so much positive emotional connection around food,” she said. “And I think it’s a wonderful way to show people that we honor your food choices.”
Kya Roumimper, coordinator of multicultural student support and success and equity education at Keene State, said the college has become much more diverse over the past 10 years, and students are already responding positively to the new pantry.
The percentage of students of color on campus has risen from about 3 percent in 2009 to about 9 percent in 2018, growing from fewer than 200 students to more than 320 even as the college’s total enrollment has dropped, according to data in the Keene State Factbook. And Roumimper said Keene State enrolls both full-time traditional and exchange students from a wide range of countries, such as Guatemala, Thailand, Jamaica, Brazil and Somalia.
“When you’re coming into college, this being a really huge transition for a lot of students in a new space, and a lot of them are first [generation] or they’re coming from different, more diverse places, it’s already a bit of a culture shock,” Roumimper said. “And to have a place where they can come in and grab food that reminds them of home, that’s free and that’s restocked every month, is incredible.”
Wallace and Neil Wallace said they have mostly been able to fill student requests from local grocery stores, though in some cases they’ve had to ask stores to order particular items. They’ve also kept an eye out for some of the most sought-after foods outside of Keene, browsing international markets when they’ve traveled to other states.
“Students don’t have cars, and they don’t have time to travel 50, 60, 100 miles to get the foods that say ‘home.’ ... We want them to focus on their studies,” Neil Wallace said. “And this is a way to let them know that we hear you, we see you, we value you, and we’re so thrilled that you’re in our community.”
The couple is interested in expanding the project beyond the campus in the future, they said, and also hope to broadly focus on literacy, inclusion and hunger through The Daily Good.
They said they’ve been pleased with the response so far. And according to Roumimper, the pantry has also led students to gather for informal community nights, getting together to cook traditional recipes such as tostones, a dish made with plantains that’s common in Latin and Caribbean cultures.
“That’s the sort of community building that happens naturally when they can find a place or find something that reminds them of home and makes them comfortable,” she said.