Public relations class serves up innovative ideas to Central PA Food Bank

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Students in a public relations class at Penn State Harrisburg transformed classroom lessons into practical solutions for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

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MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Many people don't know the difference between a food bank and a food pantry. They don't realize, for example, that the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank is a central warehouse that delivers to the pantries, agencies, soup kitchens and shelters in 27 counties. That also means people often don’t know that the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank would prefer monetary donations rather than food. Because the food bank buys in bulk, it can provide six meals from a single dollar donation.

Students in Amy Sauertieg's public relations campaign class in the School of Humanities at Penn State Harrisburg were ready to tackle this problem, developing creative ideas to bring awareness to the issue.

Four students in the class — Sydney Wingfield, Brittany Wolf, Xinyi Tao, and Matthew Taylor — worked on the project all semester, according to Sauertieg, assistant teaching professor in communications and public relations. They started with a tour and an opportunity to volunteer at the food bank in February. They then conducted a survey about people's knowledge of the food bank, and tested the results against local demographic information.

“I wanted them to work on something meaningful,” Sauertieg said. “This was theory put into practice.”

At the end of the semester, the students presented their suggestions to food bank officials.

The first suggestion was to hold a food bank grocery game, like those run on the Food Network by Chef Guy Fieri. Contestant chefs would have a time limit to collect specific ingredients from the warehouse and prepare a healthy and tasty meal in the food bank's kitchen. Local reporters would be invited as judges. Audience members could pay $15 to attend, and another $5 to sample the results. Contests could be posted on YouTube. People watching the YouTube video and news reports would see the extent of the warehouse, learn about the food bank’s important mission, and hopefully be inspired to contribute money. The selected chefs could post about the contest on their own social media sites, further increasing awareness.

The second suggestion was to hold a social media contest for the food bank called “Vote to Promote: Hometown Showdown.” For four weeks, the food bank would share information on its social media channels about food banks and food pantries with a focus on its $1 equals six meals campaign. At the end would be a quiz, with all successful participants entered into a raffle.

Jennifer Sands, communications manager for the food bank, and David Carl, corporate and foundation giving manager, were impressed by the presentation.

“There was great creative thought around this,” Carl said.

The grocery game could fit well with some other projects the food bank is already doing, he said, noting he planned to share the ideas with his team.

Sands said the group had some aggressive objectives, but came up with tactics to reach them.

The students said the practical, hands-on project will help them in their future careers.

“It was really beneficial,” Wolf said. “Until now most of what we have learned has been hypothetical. It's different when it's a real client.”

Tao, an advertising major, said he has not had much experience with nonprofits, but finds them interesting and the project useful.

Andy Dessel, a former student and health innovations manager for the food bank, illustrates the benefits of working with a real client. He took the same class when he was an undergraduate at Penn State Harrisburg, where he worked on a proposal to get more young people involved as volunteers for the food bank. Now, he is tasked with the idea of improving the health of clients through nutrition.

“I took away many vital lessons from the project that I apply regularly, including how to best work as part of a team; how to effectively research, develop and write a proposal; time management; and how to present a professional proposal regardless of the particular program or campaign context,” Dessel said.

“It's inspiring to have former students there,” Sauertieg said. “It comes around full circle.”