By Leah Jones, Features Editor
As the cold weather began to set into St. Louis, the scent of Diane Shuey’s warm homemade cookies wafted through the air of the colorful Mosaic Café and Community Center. The cookies sat next to a Keurig which had been donated by a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor, as well as other donated food items. Mosaic offers not only free cookies, but warm beverages, dry goods, personal care products, and even childcare products. Students drop in and grab a snack, take-home food to make themselves, and participate in a program called SNAP It Up, which provides students with personal care items not covered by SNAP/WIC. Students can also request items that they need on Mosaic’s website by providing their email.
“I made cookies for today,” Shuey, the manager of Mosaic, said. “[But] folks don’t know we’re here and they don’t know what we have. Students who come in can get breakfast or lunch…Breads, fruits, soups, cereals, that kind of thing. If you want to take something with you that comes readily to hand, you can throw one of these in your backpack.”
Mosaic opened at the end of August. It is located at 8000 Natural Bridge Road, across the street from UMSL at the Normandy Methodist Church. Mosaic asks for the names of students who visit, but students do not need to show ID or any sort of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) card to receive free food. They are open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, though they hope to extend these hours.
Laura Miller, graduate, philosophy, founded Mosaic in response to food policies on UMSL’s campus. Miller, who graduated summa cum laude in the Spring of 2016 with her BA in philosophy with a concentration in pre-law, a certificate in gender studies, and a certificate in women’s leadership, said that according to her research, up to 50 percent of UMSL students, or 6,911 students could be facing food insecurity. “Even if paperwork makes that number look bigger and you throw out half of those students, you are still talking about 3,000 students,” Miller said.
Miller said that the food policies on campus fail to help these hungry students. Sodexo, the food service company at UMSL, does not offer SNAP eligible products on campus and they require faculty to fill out an online food permit form before they bring food to classes, according to Miller. Miller also said that food policies disallow food pantries on campus. “You can’t donate leftover food,” she said. “You can’t have a food pantry on campus because you can’t give away food. If you have a food pantry, it has to at least contain food from Sodexo, but any food from Sodexo has to be paid for.”
Miller recounted how she took leftover food to a food pantry after an on-campus event during which she was inducted into one of her honor’s societies. Miller said that when she told Sodexo what she had done, they told her that she could not do that, despite the fact that they had already paid for the food. “They were compensated for it. Whatever we do with it after that point should be ours to do…and they [said] ‘No, that’s for us to do’,” Miller said. “As far as they are concerned, their food is theirs, and they control all food on campus. So if they provide it, if they make it…it’s theirs. Even after you buy it, it’s somehow still theirs. There is something very fundamentally wrong, even from a business standpoint, about ownership when you can purchase a good and it’s not yours.”
Miller struggled against these policies last semester. She requested a copy of the contract between UMSL and Sodexo through the Sunshine Law. She claims that though contracts govern business relationships, they can be renegotiated. “Contracts are not written in stone. People modify contracts all the time. Especially if they find out that a certain provision or a certain section or something isn’t working, then they go back to the table…And now you have a new modified contract. So no one should believe that we are bound to the contract letter by letter,” she said. “Any power that Sodexo has on campus, they ultimately got because we allowed them to have it. So we can blame the Sodexo contract as much as we want, but we’re as much responsible for the writing in the Sodexo contract as Sodexo is.”
Though some of the policies, such as the online food permit, are meant to help ensure the safety of the food, Miller says that UMSL needs to reexamine whether or not these policies are actually working for students, and strike a balance. Miller said that she does not believe that the contract was signed with malicious intentions, but that the unintended consequences of the contract hurt students. “I am challenging administration to recognize the unintended consequences, but also to fix them,” Miller said.
Despite meetings with different people on campus, Miller knew that the changing the contract could take a long time. “I realized, for all the meetings that I was in, nobody was getting fed… So the hunger remains. And I knew that the contract stuff was not going to be a quick fix,” she said. “[I thought] ‘How can we get outside of the arm of all of this administrative red tape?’” Then, she spied the Normandy Methodist Church across the street from UMSL’s campus.
Miller contacted the church and set up a meeting to discuss setting up a food pantry. “She explained how students who are receiving assistance can’t get any help while they’re one campus… She said the biggest problem seemed to be an on-campus location,” Shuey said.
In serendipitous twist, the building already had a kitchen set up because a previous pastor had tried to set up a coffee house called Mosaic in the basement. “So we were very happy to have someone use our space, and she was very happy to find it, so it was sort of like it was ordained. And I had just retired, which was really fortuitous because you need someone to be here,” Shuey said.
Miller was thrilled. “They met all the state requirements for the state and the city and all that good stuff…[but] I [had] a couple of requests,” she said. “I want[ed] to be able to help students, no questions asked.”
Miller also requested hot drinks and also asked that the café not become a sanctimonious space. “They also agreed that they were not going to into Mosaic with ‘We’re going to save you,’ unless it’s with food. You’re not going to walk in with walls of crucifixes…There’s no bibles, nobody’s going praise Jesus over your head. It’s just a cool place to hang out. It’s not in the sanctuary part.”
Shuey reiterated this point and said “[It’s] not church-ey at all. I think that’s probably the biggest problem that we have, is that people are a little reluctant to come over here….You don’t have to go through the sanctuary. Nobody’s going to jump at you with a bible in their hands. We’re just here to serve.”
Miller said that while Mosaic helps hungry students, Grace Learning Center, a non-church affiliated daycare upstairs, is convenient for working parents as well. “It’s full-time, part-time, or drop in. Drop in means as needed childcare. I’m a single mom, and I can tell you, as-needed childcare is needed,” Miller said. “As a single parent, you could go to Mosaic’s building, drop your child off at childcare, go downstairs, get a snack, get a drink, email your professor…take a coffee, and go walk across the class, no extra transportation, no extra gas.”
Though Miller founded Mosaic in response to food policies on UMSL’s campus, she said that the outpouring of generosity from people on UMSL’s campus fuels Mosaic. All of the supplies at Mosaic were either donated or bought with money that was donated. “What I found out is not only do the policies limit the help that the students could receive, they limited the people who would have helped the students…So Mosaic gave them that chance. It was neat to see the faculty get all excited,” she said. Mosaic also relies on student volunteers.
Ursula Mitchell, senior, criminology and criminal justice, helped to make some of the SNAP It Up bags. “It was actually for extra credit for my class,” Mitchell said as she took a break from studying. “This is actually my first time, but I really like it, so I’ll be back. Hopefully it is something that is ongoing for me.”
Helen Tatiana Horrigan, who graduated from Hazelwood Central High School, also volunteered for the first time at Mosaic. “My granny goes to this church… I found out on Sunday about this program,” she said.
Shuey helped Horrigan fill out applications for college. “The neat things is it works out to be sort of a networking service too because we have students who are just at the end of their time on campus helping students who are just beginning. I have some expertise because I used to teach college and everything,” she said.
Miller said, “I like the name Mosaic because poverty affects such a diverse group of people, I think the solution should be as diverse as the problem and that if the solution were as diverse as the problem, we could make something beautiful out of something that’s really not, but it’s going to take all of us.” With the help of Shuey’s cookies, Mosaic will undoubtedly have more volunteers and patrons in no time.
To check out Mosaic’s programs like SNAP It Up or to volunteer at Mosaic visit accessmosaic.org/ or facebook.com/events/1524753577832888/?active_tab=about. You can also text Mosaic at 314-698-3948.