In a competition modeled after the TV show "Shark Tank," a trio of Niagara University students won $10,000 to open a community kitchen in the North End of the city.

The judges, not nearly as snarky and competitive as those on the TV show, were a range of community leaders including Mayor Paul Dyster, Congressman Brian Higgins and developer Craig Avery, along with businesswomen Deirdre Bartholomew, general manager of Sodexo, an international quality of life organization, and Lisa Tucker, executive director of Field & Fork Network, a local nonprofit food and farming organization.

'The contest, which began in September and included more than 100 students, had been narrowed down to three teams. Their challenge: Create a small business or nonprofit that would help Niagara Falls residents in the poorest neighborhoods deal with a "food desert" where it is challenging for those without transportation to obtain fresh produce and other foods.

The contest, called EntreprenNU, is part of the school's effort to be a partner to partner with the city to enrich the lives of residents, along with allowing their students to participate in the Vincenzian mission of service to the poor.

The winners were a team of students that included Maggie Hempel, Victoria Swider and Mackenzie Kutzuba. Their idea was to create a location called The Community Kitchen, modeled like the multi-station sets of the most popular cooking shows, where residents could learn to cook a variety of foods, and also be able to purchase meats and produce.

"I am a business major and Maggie and McKensie are social work majors," Swider told the judges and the audience that had gathered in Leary Theatre at Niagara University, as she explained why her team should win the money. They explained that their idea was partly based on their research that residents might eat more healthy foods if they had access to them and knew how to prepare them. During their research at locations such as the Heart Love and Soul Food Pantry, they were told that some foods, such as lentils for example, are left behind because people don't know how to cook them.

The three students told the judges they had looked into three locations for their community kitchen, including two owned by the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, the Renaissance Place on Highland Ave., and the Doris Jones Family Resource Building on 9th Street. Another location under consideration, the trio said, was the Niagara Community Center (formerly the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara Falls) on 17th Street.

The team said that families would be their audience, especially children. "Getting kids in the community excited about foods and cooking is our big goal," Swider said.

The judges were patient as the teams shared their ideas. The mayor, a former professor, did question one team about whether they'd read a recent media report that the building they wanted to house their cooperative farmers market was in the process of being purchased by the city. And the congressman expressed a wish for more clarity from the presenters about "what keeps the farmers from establishing a farmer's market in the city." But overall, the teams received kudos for making it to the finals and for their presentations.

The other two teams presented ideas for other ways to address the problems of the city's "food desert." A team called Connect U proposed a food delivery service. Members of that team were Andre Ware, Emily Palermo and Rob De Jaray. The third team, called Oaisis, proposed a cooperative market built on at the site of a former solar panel factory on Highland Avenue, along with the purchase of a growing "tunnel" where plants were grown in a water system with nutrients provided by fish. That team included Matt Lanning, James Lioi, and Caralynne Shaffer.

The judges were patient while the teams shared their ideas. The mayor, a former professor, did question one team about whether they'd read a recent media report regarding the building where they wanted to house their cooperative farmers market. He noted that the structure was in the process of being purchased by the city. And the congressman expressed a wish that all three teams had better addressed the "food desert" in areas of Niagara Falls and wondered "what keeps the farmers from establishing a farmer's market in the city."

In the end, it was the simplicity of the idea of The Community Kitchen that won the day.

After the judges talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, Lisa Tucker announced that the team called The Community Kitchen won the $10,000. "We really thought that the Community Kitchen had the best chance of hitting the ground running."

Afterwards, Swider said she and her team were happy about the win, but now thinking about the challenge ahead. "It hasn't really sunk in yet," she said. "It's a little overwhelming thinking about what we have to do next,. We'll just take it one step at a time and hope it works." She said the trio hoped to have The Community Kitchen up and running by late summer or early fall.

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