Building community through food

Carol Fletcher, ‘87, takes food very seriously. As assistant director for residential dining, she has to—she supervises both dining centers on campus, as well as the bakery, so understanding the significant role food and nutrition play in student lives is a key part of her job. But she also has a personal understanding of how important food can be.

When Carol Fletcher was a student at UNI, she and her husband lived in married student housing, sustained themselves on bologna sandwiches and often struggled to put food on the table at all. Thankfully, she met a family in the community who made sure she was well fed. They’d invite her to come over for dinner on Sunday if she was in need of a good meal.

That experience not only helped Fletcher stay fed, it helped her feel supported. “I was very blessed,” she said. “It’s amazing that there’s people like that out there. The whole community roots for you to be successful.”

Today, Fletcher is a part of that community, and she’s able to provide that kind of support to students through her work in the dining center. Though she has a degree in nutrition from UNI, for Fletcher, food is about so much more than that—it’s food’s ability to build community and make people feel supported that makes it so significant.

“You definitely need the nutrition, but all of us know, when you think of your mom’s cooking, you think of being warm and loved,” she said. “That’s what food is.”

Fletcher has seen the potential of food play out on campus—both as a student and employee. Her experiences in the dining center as a student made her see the dining center “as a gathering place rather than a food place.”

Carol Fletcher oversees work in the University of Northern Iowa Piazza dining hall.
Carol Fletcher oversees work in the University of Northern Iowa Piazza dining hall.

“I remember sitting at the table and that being such a joyful time,” she said. “Just getting to know people and enjoying that experience.”

And as an employee, she got to see just how powerful it can be when students come together. She recalled being in the dining center during 9/11.

“I remember that so vividly. We had just renovated the Piazza and we had that bar seating around the TVs. Literally all the students were gathered around this bar, watching the TVs,” she said. “That whole weekend, students would just gather there and stay for hours, just watching. I was so proud at that moment that we gave that ability for students to gather in a place and feel like they weren’t alone.”

Fletcher is passionate about helping students make connections—everything from finding support in a time of tragedy to  just making positive memories with friends—and through her work, she’s made efforts to make the dining centers an environment conducive to that. One change she helped make in effort to do this is changing meal plans to an unlimited access model. This allows students to enter and leave the dining centers as much as they want, to grab a quick bite or just to hang out with friends.

“I would encourage people to, even if you’re just thinking, ‘Oh, I’d really like a drink of pop,’ stop in, rather than spend the money, and you might run into some friends and sit down and enjoy company,” she said. “The whole purpose of that unlimited access is getting people in and really conversing and sitting down with people.”

But, it’s not just dining services—Fletcher says UNI’s entire campus is devoted to creating a welcoming environment for people to connect. She often travels to other campuses for her work, but says UNI is the friendliest school she’s been to. “You don’t walk across campus without somebody saying hello to you,” she said. “I’ve gone across lots of campuses and not had anybody say hello, but [at UNI] I know even when it’s a stranger, I’ll see people say hello.”

And sometimes it’s a few passing words to a stranger that lead to the deeper connections Fletcher loves. She remembered walking to the dining center one day and seeing a student struggling with her crutches. The student had recently broken her leg and was struggling to walk to the dining center for meals every day. Fletcher exchanged contact information with the student and helped arrange for sack meals (which the dining center offered at the time) until she got back on her feet.

When she got better, the student reached out to Fletcher again about a job at the dining center. Not only did the student end up working at the Rialto, but she got so close to her coworkers, she ended up attending the wedding of one of her managers. The impact Fletcher had was even bigger than helping this student find a job and make friends—without Fletcher, this student may not have stayed in school at all.

“I didn’t even realize the impact until her parents sent me a note and said she was going to quit school,” Fletcher said. “But because of my interaction and me getting her the sack meals and getting her a job, she ended up staying.”

Fletcher started working at UNI as soon as she graduated, and she’s been an employee for the 30 years since—and it’s those moments of connection that keep her here. “That’s why I’ve stayed—I feel like I have an impact,” she said. “I feel like I do make a difference in people’s lives.”

That’s why Fletcher takes food—and her job—so seriously. “Although you certainly want to have good food and good nutrition, food ends up being far more important in terms of connection,” she said. “That, to me, is what drives UNI forward, is that feeling of closeness, of family, of community.”