Syracuse, N.Y. – The senior resume of Emma Gossman reads like a recruiter’s dream.
She’s co-captain of the Syracuse University women’s rowing team. She’s co-president of SU’s Academic Advisory Council, a group of coach-nominated athletes that helps decide policy and acts as a liaison between athletes, administrators and the ACC. She’s involved in SU’s Diversity and Inclusion Student-Athlete Board. She routinely makes the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll.
“That’s the person she is,” SU rowing coach Luke McGee said. “She’s pretty well-rounded.”
Gossman, a dual major in major in Biology and Citizenship and Civic Engagement (CCE), wants to be a doctor when her college career concludes. Her freshman year, she enrolled in a CCE program that encourages its students to locate problems in the city of Syracuse and figure out ways to solve them.
“I took a few medical anthropology courses,” Gossman said. “One we did was on food insecurity in Syracuse. I’ve been passionate about it because it’s the most basic thing and one of the great equalizers in a community. It really starts with having healthy food. It affects long-term health.”
Gossman’s passion has edged past the theoretical and moved into the practical.
Last summer, to prepare for her senior year capstone project at SU, she contacted the Northeast Community Center (SNCC) to offer nutritional help for the center’s food pantry patrons. She wanted to steer pantry customers away from processed, high-sodium options too many shoppers were choosing and instead offer healthier, but still palatable, alternatives. Down the road, she reasoned, people who ate better sustained better overall health.
By last fall, she had applied for a grant to buy supplemental ingredients that would make healthy pantry products tastier. She made a cookbook of 12 recipe cards that incorporate pantry staples with spices, dressings or other items she bought with the grant money.
Gossman’s first recipe was for a tuna burger. On Tuesday, she delivered her second batch of ingredients and her second batch of recipe cards to the Northeast Community Center.
Brian Fay, the Northeast Community Center Executive Director, likens the concept to the popular meal-kit company Blue Apron, which ships ingredients and recipes to customers who like the convenience of one-stop shopping.
“It’s one thing to give food to people in emergency situations,” Fay said. “It’s another thing to move from emergency to self-reliance. And that’s really what we’re trying to do. Emma’s project is all about that. She’s providing recipes, spices and other ingredients, and also the know-how to be able to utilize those. And she’s been very thoughtful about the population that we serve here on the Northeast side, which includes a lot of refugees, immigrants and new Americans.”
Gossman’s program is the culmination of two years of research that initially determined the most disadvantaged Syracuse neighborhoods in terms of food insecurity and overall health of its residents. She then cold-called Kristi Schoff, the SNCC’s family support assistant who oversees the food pantry, and with Schoff’s help started designing a program for some of the city’s neediest residents.
Gossman initially theorized that food pantry shoppers were picking unhealthy options because that was all the pantries provided. But she quickly learned that wasn’t true. The Northeast Community Center pantry had plenty of meats and vegetables. It provided low-sodium staples. But those products stayed on the shelves.
“After talking to Kristi, the huge problem with people not taking the food was one, it was a cultural issue – it didn’t align with their culture,” Gossman said. “Two, they didn’t know how to use it in a recipe. Or three, it wasn’t appetizing. They didn’t want to eat it. So, what could I do to get people to take these items and eat the healthier food?”
Gossman determined the best way to do that was to provide healthy recipes that incorporated pantry staples with such things as spices, yogurts, dressings or tortillas she bought with grant money.
“I ended up getting an assessment of what they have (at the pantry) so I could identify what should be the base of the recipes,” she said. “But that didn’t really address the idea that if people don’t have this or don’t have that, they’re still not going to make it. So that’s when I decided to add the second part, which was the supplemental ingredient provision.”
For the tuna burgers, that meant shopping at Walmart to buy spices and ranch dressing and including those ingredients in a package with the food pantry items. In the first Covid-restricted iteration of Gossman’s program, the center provided recipe bundles to families. Now, customers can enter the pantry, pick up a recipe card and shop its shelves.
“We actually have seen more interest in those (healthier) items as people have learned about it,” Fay said. “Any time we can provide recipe cards and guidance like that, it has been very helpful.”
Pete Wilcoxen, a professor in SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs who oversaw Gossman’s project, could not say precisely how many students over the years have turned course concepts into actual grassroots solutions.
“But Emma really stands out, that’s for sure,” he said. “Her project is unusually successful. We’ve had lots of projects that were over the hurdle to be considered successful, but we’ve only had a handful that produced a thing that made a significant, and we hope long-lasting, impact on the community. Emma’s was one of those.”
“There are students who have these great ideas,” Fay said. “What’s rare is a person like Emma, who puts it into motion.”
The Northeast Community Center hopes to sustain Gossman’s program with future grants once she leaves SU.
The NCAA has permitted college athletes who participated in sports during a year of Covid disruptions an additional season of eligibility. Gossman, who sits in the middle four (or “the engine room”) of the second varsity eight boat, isn’t sure whether she’ll stay an extra year at SU or return home to the Boston area for a research position before applying to med school.
Her SU coach describes her as “a grinder,” an athlete he can count on to show up for work with the right attitude to guide her teammates through tough days on the water or in the training room.
Gossman participates in a time-consuming varsity sport at SU. She sits on several committees. And yet, she made time to help a needy pocket of Syracuse.
“She’s like our character compass,” McGee said. “She has a good head on her shoulders. She was always on point about what she needed to do, what the team needed to do. She just kind of gets what has to be done and she does it.”
NOTE: You can visit the Northeast Community Center website to inquire about donating spices or condiments to its pantry.
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