The experience of bagging sweet potatoes and boxing jelly for food pantries this semester has taught Mississippi State University students who focus on food and health issues that helping others is a sweet gift, too.

Several students in the MSU Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion organized the Committee of 19, a leadership group devoted to raising awareness of the state's food insecurity issues. Others are members of the MSU Food Science Club, an organization that seeks opportunities for real-life experience in preparation, processing and distribution of food products.

“I want to encourage people not to give up hope, and that is why I help,” said V.J. Radhakrishnan, a graduate student from India working on his doctorate in food science. “I encourage them, and they also encourage me.”

Some students, like Radhakrishnan, bagged potatoes and made jelly because faculty members Chiquita Briley and Juan Silva set good examples for them. Both professors use service projects to illustrate the societal relationship between food and well-being.

“I worked the first potato drop we had in 2007, and I did so because of Dr. Briley's enthusiasm,” Radhakrishnan said. “She's the reason I helped with the second one this year. Then Dr. Silva had an idea to follow her lead with the jelly and approached our food science club about donating the products to food pantries.”

Briley, who is an assistant Extension professor in the department, helped the Committee of 19 stage the sweet potato drops with the Mississippi Food Network and the Society of St. Andrew during late fall. The society secured the donation of 22,000 pounds of sweet potatoes from producers in Vardaman, Miss.

“Our students want to reach out to the community,” Briley said. “They are eager to take their classroom knowledge and apply it to their future career opportunities as professionals in the food industry.”

Students on the committee recruited volunteers across campus to participate in the drops. Each volunteer packed the mesh bags with 10 pounds of potatoes and loaded the bags into large cardboard cartons for transport to a central pickup point in Jackson. The Mississippi Food Network distributed the sweet potatoes to more than 320 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters statewide.

“Student activism is important, and it was wonderful of MSU students and staff to give unselfishly of their time to help us when they could be doing other things,” said Marilyn Blackledge, director of development for the Mississippi Food Network.

Bagging the sweet potatoes was one way for students to make healthy food available to people who cannot afford it. The food science club's jelly donation was an additional treat, Mississippi State-style. Club members make several batches of muscadine jelly and blueberry preserves each fall for the Bully Box cheese and country ham gift pack sold at the university's cheese store.

After completing an inventory for this year's boxes, food science students discovered an additional 400 jars of jelly that were not going to be included in the boxes. They asked Silva what they should do. Silva knew that Briley's affiliation with food pantries would help the situation and told his students to contact her about donating the jelly.

“The red and white muscadine jelly that we make is a unique blend, and our blueberry preserves are pretty good, too,” said club president Tony Garcia of Brandon, Miss., a graduate student in food science. “Putting a little jelly on a warm biscuit is a nice treat we wanted people to enjoy.”

Garcia said he felt students make a sizeable investment of time and commitment when they come to Mississippi State to pursue a degree.

“Students need to feel they are connected to the community, and they want to make a contribution while they're here,” he said. “The jelly donation was our way of letting people know we care.”