From students, for students: The Maize and Blue Cupboard

March 12, 2024
By Ella Loveland, Student Life

From four-hour pop-ups in constantly-rotating locations across campus to a permanent home in the heart of the University of Michigan’s Central Campus, the Maize and Blue Cupboard has grown far beyond Wesley Zhu’s wildest expectations.

Zhu always had a passion for social entrepreneurship and creating sustainable businesses. It’s a part of the reason why Zhu, a 2017 graduate from the Ross School of Business, chose to attend U-M and influenced the student organizations he chose to join. 

Zhu’s drive is also why what started as a single-semester project turned into a significant initiative serving the U-M community: The Maize and Blue Cupboard, a testament to the impact of student-led initiatives and community collaboration.

Feeding his passion

During his second year, Zhu joined Enactus, a student organization dedicated to improving communities through entrepreneurial consulting.

Each semester, Enactus members formed teams of five to 10 students, each tasked with executing a business idea. Zhu and his partner, Forest Burczak, were particularly drawn to the issue of food waste in dining halls and sought ways to redistribute this surplus to those in need.

After numerous meetings and research with campus partners, Zhu and Burczak connected with Food Gatherers, a food bank in Washtenaw County, sparking the idea of a dedicated food bank for U-M students.

The concept was simple: Food Gatherers would supply the food through donations. Zhu and Burczak would handle the rest.

As Zhu learned, “the rest” involved a lot.

Zhu and Burczak organized the logistics, securing time and location for their food bank pop-ups by working with the university to rent available on-campus spaces for a few hours each month. They promoted the pop-ups to students through posters plastered inside residence halls and on public bulletin boards. They networked with student organizations, tapping their peers to help them spread the word. 

On the day of the pop-up, Zhu and Burczak would arrive a few hours early to meet Food Gatherers, unloading and organizing the food before the first customers arrived. 

While this process jumpstarted the Maize and Blue Cupboard, the student duo realized their system was only a temporary solution.

“There started to be a really good showing at the pop-ups,” shared Zhu. 

A “good turnout” was both a positive indicator that word about the new resource on campus was spreading and a concerning sign, confirming their theories following discussions with Food Gatherers and other community partners: U-M students needed help.

As the pop-ups started gaining traction, Zhu and Burczak partnered with the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, located on East Washington Street and only about a block from the North Quadrangle Residence Hall. The church hosted the pop-ups consistently, providing a little more permanency to their system. 

For more than a year, Zhu and Burczak ran the cupboard using this model. 

“The whole project itself was a collaboration of many different organizations coming together to help students that were being overlooked,” shared Zhu. “Maybe it wasn’t a problem that people often thought about, but it existed. It’s a good example of a grassroots initiative, and different people in the community coming together to help each other.”

Zhu and Burczak worked closely with the U-M Sustainable Food Program and the Central Student Government, among others. Collaborating with two Student Life units, Michigan Dining and the Dean of Students Office, these groups formed a working group with a strong student presence to keep the idea and passion of the cupboard moving forward.

“We really wanted the cupboard to keep going beyond our time as students,” shared Zhu, “so we connected with Keith Soster at Michigan Dining.” 

This connection with Soster, and MDining, secured a permanent location for the Maize and Blue Cupboard in Ann Arbor, leading to its establishment on State Street in 2019.

From modest beginnings to a campus staple

Fast forward to now, and the Maize and Blue Cupboard is a critical resource for the entire campus community, helping everyone from students to staff and faculty. Each week, the cupboard currently serves 500-600 shoppers. 

One of those shoppers is Reza (Ray) Azizan. 

After his roommate introduced him to the cupboard in 2022, Ray spent an afternoon there every week, selecting food and other basic essential goods. His involvement has since evolved from shopping to volunteering every week.

As an international student from Malaysia, Ray highlights the significance of the Maize and Blue Cupboard for students like him, explaining that some international students come to Ann Arbor on family funds or scholarships from home, and have tight monthly budgets, all while thousands of miles from their support network. 

“For international students who struggle with getting food on the table, they’re also challenged to focus on their studies,” Ray said. “The cupboard provides reliable access to food so they can eliminate one concern. It’s essential for not only maintaining good physical health, but also mental health.”

Shoppers can find a wide range of items, including milk, eggs, meat and produce, as well as personal care essentials like toilet paper, deodorant and toothpaste.

“We often talk about how colleges strive to be an inclusive community that provides equal opportunities for all students,” explained Ray. “For me, the cupboard does this. It helps level the playing field because they provide for those in need, regardless of your background.” 

Sustaining support throughout the year

The Cupboard is a year-round resource for the U-M campus community.

While the Ann Arbor campus emptied out during the 2024 Spring break, a group of volunteers stocked shelves with an extra-large food delivery—ensuring those students who remained in the area had access to fresh food. 

Leading the volunteers was Kelly O’Mara, the cupboard’s program manager since 2020. 

Despite the break, O’Mara noted that there is typically no reduction in the number of people shopping at the cupboard, meaning there’s also a year-round need for volunteers to ensure the shelves are stocked each week.

“We rely on donations, which can vary greatly from month to month. Some months we receive donations, others we don’t. We never know when that will happen,” shared O’Mara. 

“The variability makes it challenging to balance our spending on items like coolers and maintenance, as we prioritize using monetary donation funds on food, which is ultimately what we really need,” O’Mara said.

The cupboard provides several options for those who wish to support its mission of creating an equitable environment for U-M students. Individuals can donate their time, money and goods such as kitchenware, personal care items, produce and canned food.

Monetary donations directly affect those in need as the funds are used to purchase discounted food from the community food bank. A $1 donation provides around 10 meals for those in need. 

Zhu, now working at a private equity firm in Los Angeles, makes monthly donations to the cupboard. 

“I have recurring donations for things I care about, and, obviously, the cupboard is close to me because I was a part of its origins,” Zhu said. “I’m proud of being a part of it.”

From its humble beginnings as a school project to its current status as a vital resource for the U-M community, the cupboard makes a lasting impact on students like Ray and hundreds of others each year.

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