A penny war that nickels and dimes opponents to death but quells hunger

Posted December 5, 2017

A student approaches a table in the UWRF University Center and puts a handful of pennies in one jar, boosting her college’s chance of winning a competition, and then she puts a handful of nickels, dimes and quarters in another college’s jar — increasing her own college’s odds even further.

What’s going on here? Well, it’s a “penny war,” and in this case the real winners are the River Falls food pantry and its recipients.

Friday is the last chance this semester for students to participate in the penny war fundraiser run by the UW-River Falls Honors Program.

“Every dollar we raise,” Honors Program Director Kathleen Hunzer said, “(the food pantry) can buy approximately $5 worth of food, based on their connections.”

The penny wars have been ongoing since Tuesday, and the idea behind them is that the Honors Program is pitting the different colleges on campus against one another in a contest to see who can collect the most pennies. Student volunteers from the Honors Program set up a table in the main atrium of the University Center outfitted with four collection jars – one for each of the colleges. Pennies count positive, and everything else counts negative. To help their favorite college win, students can donate pennies to their favorite while sabotaging the others with non-penny coins.

The money will go directly to the River Falls food pantry, which is located at 222 North Main St., near Bo Jon’s florist. Brad Olson, who volunteers his time to do food pickups for the pantry, said that the organization seems to do a good job of providing food to people in need.

“In the 15 years I’ve been here, I don’t remember us not really having any food ever, which is good. We’ve always had something,” Olson said. “It’s a well-run food pantry, I think.”

Because this is the first year that the Honors Program has attempted this fundraiser, Hunzer does not know exactly how much the penny wars will earn. However, every little bit helps, she said.

“Everybody thinks you need to be homeless to have food need,” Hunzer said. “The reality is that there’s a lot more food insecurity in our community, on our campus – some of our students who don’t have a meal plan face food insecurity.”

According to national 2016 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 12.3 percent of households face low or very low food security. Low means the household’s eating patterns or food intake are not significantly disrupted, but only because they’re being helped by various assistance programs. Very low means that insufficient money or food resources does disrupt their food intake or eating patterns.

“Just five years ago, we were giving out 300,000 pounds of food across (Pierce) county in the food pantries,” Hunzer said, “and that need has only gotten bigger.”

According to statistics from the Pierce County Hunger Prevention Council, the River Falls pantry serves 648 individuals and 271 households. On average, individuals get about 33 pounds of food a year, and every household gets about 78.

The penny wars will be wrapping up on Friday, but the project is part of a bigger movement on the part of the Honors Program to get students more involved in helping the community. In addition to the penny collection jars, there is a container where students can deposit receipts from Family Fresh. Each receipt counts as a bit of money that can be sent to the food pantry.

“We really want the Honors Program to have more of a presence in the community,” Hunzer said, “and so we thought, if each semester we sponsored a major volunteer activity, that would kind of increase peoples’ awareness of the amazing things our Honors students are doing.”

After this week, the Family Fresh receipts will still be collected by the Honors Program and can be dropped off at the program office in 139 Hagestad Hall. The penny wars will be repeated next fall, and with more time to organize, the Honors Program will be putting on other events like a “Caroling for Cans” food collection project or a repeat of their “Shoe Away Hunger” idea that sells used shoes for mulch and sends the money to the food pantry.