CEDAR FALLS | While most students, federal and state employees rested at home during the holiday, a band of hair-netted soldiers of service packed meals for the hungry.
With the swiftness of an assembly line and the gusto of college students on a three-day weekend, volunteers packaged 25,272 macaroni and cheese meals at the University of Northern Iowa's Maucker Union. The meals were donated to the Northeast Iowa Food Bank as part of Monday's MLK Day of Service, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.
"I have a passion for the issue of hunger so I thought I'd bring that to campus," said KaLeigh White, student and executive director of the Days of Service Committee of UNI's Service & Leadership Council, who coordinated the event. The council's mission is to provide personal development and community building opportunities.
AmeriCorps and GreenIowa AmeriCorps members kept tables stocked for 160 students, administrators and community members competing to pack the most meals in an hour and a half.
One table, self-dubbed "Team Awesome," had mac and cheese assembly down to a science. Sophomores Walter Abrego and Brianna Fisher and UNI's Dean of Students Leslie Williams scooped noodles into bags then passed it off to others who added cheese and a soy supplement.
"We always get to meet a lot of really cool people when we come to these," Fisher said. It's her second year attending the Day of Service.
A team of South Korean students from UNI's Culture and Intensive English Program manned another table, proving that service has no language barrier.
"Volunteering is related to the education of young kids," said Byung-Yeol Park, 28. The earth science education major from Kyungpook National University in Daegu is here for one month studying English. It's rare for students to do a group volunteering project on his campus, he said.
"It was very interesting and funny to see everybody fighting to win," he laughed.
But, why macaroni and cheese?
The product is first to fly off the shelf at the food bank, said Barb Prather, executive director of the Northeast Iowa Food Bank which serves 200 local pantries or about 40,000 people.
"It's easy to cook and if we don't get it donated, we usually end up purchasing it," she said.
Years ago, the food bank used to be closed on MLK Day, but Prather said since so many volunteer groups asked how they could help on the holiday, they've decided to stay open.
"In the last couple of months, people have been very generous to us," Prather said, happy to report that their shelves are well-stocked for the time being.
Outreach, Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Union in Hardin County, coordinated getting donated ingredients for Monday's packing event. The 10-year-old organization coordinates food packaging events around the globe.
"We're just trying to feed as many hungry people as we can," said Leon Sporrer, an Outreach representative.