Rollins: Service learning opportunities helping prep for culinary future

A young Black college student waters seedlings inside a green house

By Hannah Fields

A farm-to-table country restaurant. A breakfast bar specializing in organic fruits and vegetables. One of the more popular American dreams has its hold on Stillman College student Ethan Rollins.

Rollins, a business major from Nashville, Tennessee, once visited a black-owned breakfast bar in Atlanta. There, he saw black people owning and running a business with style and good customer service and thought, “I could do that.”

Now, he is creating a marketing plan for a breakfast bar for his Stillman Senior Thesis.

There’s still much to learn before becoming a restaurateur, so the senior business major is learning how to grow foods and serve those in need through Stillman’s Free Food Distribution program, for which he serves as a coordinator.

A young Black college student waters seedlings inside a green house
Rollins waters seed plots in Stillman’s newly remodeled greenhouse.

The FFD is a partnership between Stillman, Metz Culinary Management, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Temporary Emergency Services to help feed needy families in the fight against food insecurity in West Tuscaloosa. To promote sustainability, Dr. Gordon A. Govens, executive director of Faith-Based and Social Justice Initiatives at Stillman, developed a partnership with Metz, which operates the cafeteria at Stillman, to give leftover food to needy families in the community.

The establishment of the FFD program created opportunities for students to not only participate and earn service experience, but to learn key tenets of sustainability, like cultivating gardens and growing food. For Rollins, the connection to the program started after a conversation with Mason Bonner, director of social justice and community engagement. Rollins had mentioned to Bonner his dream of owning a breakfast bar. So, Bonner immediately saw this as an opportunity to get more students involved in the FFD but presented it to Rollins as a networking tool.

One of the networking opportunities was closer than he thought, coincidentally in Batchelor Hall, an administration building on Stillman’s campus. Rollins said Bonner asked him if he was familiar with Catfish Heaven, a local restaurant owned by a family with a close connection to Stillman: Andrew Robertson, dean of career services, whose family owns and operates the restaurant. Weeks later, Rollins spoke to Robertson about his many contacts with other local restaurants, and they plan to meet soon to talk about his own experiences with the food service industry.

“Boom, right there, you got one person who has known that type of industry,” Rollins said of the meeting with Robertson.

Bonner did not just tell Rollins that he could network, but he showed how the FFD program is a way to serve Stillman’s surrounding community. Not only does FFD package leftover foods and distribute them to the West End community, but the program also has a sustainability component through its tie to the Stillman Foundation’s community garden, located adjacent to campus.

As the event strategist of the student-led organization, The Pulse, Rollins prioritizes serving his school and the Tuscaloosa community, so after Bonner explained the purpose of the FFD and its unique opportunities, Rollins was offered the position and said, simply, “Yeah, that seems like something I would like to contribute to.”

Upon joining the program, Bonner said Rollins made the program’s logistics immediately more reasonable as they prepared for a visit from TES, which gathers the boxed meals and distributes them.

Govens said students play an important role in transporting the food from the cafeteria to Brown Memorial.

“This would allow for continuity in the scheduling of both the picking up of the leftovers and the distribution of the food to the Temporary Emergency Service,” he said.

Since Rollins has been a part of the Free Food Distribution, Bonner said Rollins has kept his word to contribute to the project in other ways.

“He volunteered to assist with the free food distribution and the community garden with a passion and energy,” Bonner said. “We recognized his interest and skills and appointed him to the leadership role. He is – and has been – a blessing to this department.”

Rollins said he works hard in his efforts not just to help the community now, but to learn how he can improve communities in the future, when he achieves his dream of owning a breakfast bar.

“(I am) gonna have some excess [food],” Rollins said. “So, I think the free food distribution is one of the few things I think I could definitely incorporate within my future plans.”