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Everyday Heroes: Claire Mistretta

Fresh Express

Claire Mistretta opens the door to Fresh Express and heads to the refrigerator, a cornucopia of healthy foods. It’s filled with kale, tomatoes and bell peppers that will make their way into the hands of University of Georgia students.

Mistretta, a 21-year-old social work major from Grayson, leads the free market with fresh produce and non-perishables, such as beans, rice and pasta. The student-led effort launched a physical location in the Joe Frank Harris Dining Commons in August.

“The access to fresh produce is not always there for students facing food insecurity, and so we really wanted to close that gap,” Mistretta said.

Credit: Sarah Donehoo

Credit: Sarah Donehoo

Accessing fruit and vegetables became tougher for students as they returned to campuses across the nation after COVID-19 closures, she said.

Fresh Express began in 2021 to help combat that food insecurity. Calvin Rausch, the Student Government Association’s chief of staff, helped come up with the idea and led it for the first year. They started by handing out food at tables during campus events, but Rausch worked with UGA’s Auxiliary Services to find a physical location.

Rausch noticed that Mistretta consistently attended volunteer events and showed up for everything, even when she didn’t have an official title, so she asked her to lead the project. She knew she could trust Mistretta and “that she would continue to show up for what we’re both passionate about,” Rausch said.

Having someone else say she was capable of taking over Fresh Express boosted Mistretta’s confidence that she could step into a role that “was much bigger than I probably thought I could handle,” she said.

Rausch said she is impressed with how Mistretta was able to find her place as a student in an adult space, as she interacted with university administrators.

“I’m never concerned about sending (Mistretta) into a meeting with new folks because she’s amicable and she’s patient and she’s polite,” Rausch said. “That’s exactly what you want to see in an executive director of a service organization.”

Opening the location and establishing community partnerships has been challenging at times, but Mistretta learned how to bounce back from setbacks and continue searching for alternative partnerships and opportunities.

“I have this trait of persistence,” Mistretta said. “I never know what’s going to happen, but whatever it is, we’ll figure it out and problem solve.”

Fresh Express is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and students can register for a pickup time on SGA’s website.

UGArden, a student community farm, provides a minimum of 20 bundles of produce a week, which is enough for 20 students. SGA receives food donations and purchases non-perishable items with donated funds. The produce and pantry staples are joined by recipes, like cherry tomato pasta.

It was important, she said, to provide accessible foods on the east side of UGA’s campus, which has residence halls and classrooms, since other resources are offered near the Tate Student Center in the middle of campus.

“Now that we’ve been in this space, spreading the word has been a big thing, and getting volunteers to commit to the project and stay committed to the project so that we can serve students,” Mistretta said.

Taylor Cain, an SGA adviser and assistant dean of students, said she has been impressed by Mistretta’s servant leadership and how she makes time to look out for her peers.

“It’s the willingness to probably stick your neck out there and try your hand at something so new,” Cain said. “There’s no roadmap, there’s no how-to guide.”

Mistretta said she is fueled by understanding how vital it is for busy students to have access to healthy food, especially when starting the day.

“Substituting those healthier options makes you feel better,” she said. “Being hungry doesn’t have to be that first thought in your mind. It opens you up to be able to focus on other things and to be fueled to go do all the amazing things the students here are doing.”

HOW TO HELP

For more information, visit https://sga-professional-clothing-closet.myshopify.com/pages/freshexpress

If you are interested in volunteering at the Fresh Express pantry, please click here.


WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT

This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.

Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.

We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead. We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

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