Syracuse University rower Emma Gossman is designing a program to provide healthier food on the north side of Syracuse

SYRACUSE, NY – Emma Gossman’s resume reads like a recruiter’s dream.

She is co-captain of the Syracuse University women’s rowing team. She is co-president of SU’s Academic Advisory Council, a group of coach-nominated athletes that helps make policy decisions and acts as a liaison between athletes, administrators and the ACC. She is an active member of SU’s Student-Athlete Board for diversity and inclusion. She routinely makes the athletic director’s roll of honor.

“That’s who she is,” said SU rowing coach Luke McGee. “She’s quite versatile.”

Gossman, who has dual majors in biology and citizenship and civic engagement (CCE), wants to be a doctor after completing her college career. In her freshman year, she enrolled in a CCE program that encourages its students to locate problems in the city of Syracuse and find ways to solve them.

“I took some medical anthropology courses,” Gossman said. “One that we did was food insecurity in Syracuse. I’ve been passionate about it because it’s the most fundamental thing and one of the great levelers in a community. It really starts with a healthy diet. It has a long-term effect on health.”

Gossman’s passion has left the theoretical behind and turned to the practical.

Last summer, she contacted the Northeast Community Center (SNCC) to prepare for her capstone project for her senior year at SU to provide nutritional assistance to the guests of the center’s pantry. She wanted to steer pantry customers away from processed, high-sodium options that too many shoppers choose, and instead offer healthier, but still tasty, alternatives. Later, she argued, people who ate better remained of better overall health.

Last fall, she applied for a grant to purchase additional ingredients that would make healthy pantry products tastier. She has created a cookbook with 12 recipe cards that include pantry staples with spices, dressings, or other items she purchased with the grant money.

Gossman’s first recipe was a tuna burger. On Tuesday, she delivered her second batch of ingredients and her second batch of recipe cards to the Northeast Community Center.

The front of a recipe provided to the Northeast Community Center by Emma Gossman. (photo provided)

Emma Gossman's recipe

The back of a recipe card provided to the Northeast Community Center by Emma Gossman. (photo provided)

Northeast Community Center executive director Brian Fay likens the concept to popular meal kit company Blue Apron, which ships ingredients and recipes to customers who appreciate the convenience of one-stop shopping.

“It’s one thing to give food to people in emergencies,” Fay said. “It’s another thing going from emergency to self-reliance. And we really try. Emma’s project is all about that. It provides recipes, spices and other ingredients and also the know-how to use them. And she has cared deeply for the population we serve here in the Northeast, which includes many refugees, immigrants and new Americans.”

Gossman’s program is the culmination of two years of research that first identified the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Syracuse in terms of food insecurity and the overall health of their residents. She then made an unsolicited call to Kristi Schoff, SNCC’s family support assistant who oversees the pantry, and with Schoff’s help, began designing a program for some of the city’s neediest residents.

Gossman first theorized that grocery store buyers were selecting unhealthy options because that was all the pantries provided. But she quickly learned that wasn’t true. The Northeast Community Center pantry had plenty of meat and vegetables. It provided low-sodium staples. But these products stayed on the shelves.

“After speaking to Kristi, the big issue with people not eating the food was a cultural issue — it didn’t fit their culture,” Gossman said. “Second, they didn’t know how to use it in a recipe. Or three, it wasn’t appetizing. They didn’t want to eat it. So what could I do to get people to take these things and eat healthier?”

Gossman decided the best way to do that was to offer healthy recipes that included pantry staples with things like condiments, yogurt, dressings or tortillas that she bought with grant money.

“I ended up getting an evaluation of what they have (in the pantry) so I could figure out what the recipes should be based on,” she said. “But that didn’t really address the idea that if people don’t have this or that, they still won’t make it. So I decided to add the second part, which is providing additional ingredients.”

For the tuna burgers, that meant shopping at Walmart to buy condiments and ranch dressing, and including those ingredients in a package with the pantry groceries. In the first Covid-restricted iteration of Gossman’s program, the center provided prescription packs to families. Now customers can enter the pantry, pick up a recipe card, and shop the shelves.

“We’ve actually seen more interest in these (healthier) items than people have heard about,” Fay said. “Any time we’ve been able to provide recipe cards and instructions like this, it’s been very helpful.”

Emma Gossmann

SU Senior Emma Gossman, left, delivers groceries and recipe cards to the Northeast Community Center. Family Assistant Kristi Schoff (center) shows recipe cards to Katie Stager, the center’s senior program coordinator. Donna Ditota | ddito@syracuse.com

Pete Wilcoxen, a professor at SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs who oversaw Gossman’s project, couldn’t pinpoint how many students over the years have translated course concepts into actual baseline solutions.

“But Emma really stands out, that’s for sure,” he said. “Your project is unusually successful. We’ve had many projects that went beyond the hurdle of being considered successful, but we’ve only had a handful that have produced something that has had a significant and, we hope, long-lasting impact on the community. Emmas was one of them.”

“There are students who have these great ideas,” Fay said. “What’s rare is a person like Emma who sets it in motion.”

The Northeast Community Center hopes to support Gossman’s program with future grants once she leaves SU.

The NCAA has granted extra season to collegiate athletes who participated in sports during a year with Covid disruptions. Gossman, who sits in the middle four (or “the engine room”) of University Eight’s second boat, is unsure if she will stay an extra year at SU or return home to the Boston area for a research position. before she applies to med school.

Her SU coach describes her as “a grinder,” an athlete he can count on when she shows up with the right attitude to guide her teammates through tough days on the water or in the gym.

Gossman competes in a time-consuming varsity sport at SU. She sits on several committees. And yet she made time to help a needy part of Syracuse.

“She’s like our character compass,” McGee said. “She has a good head on her shoulders. She was always on point what she needed to do, what the team needed to do. She just gets what needs to be done and she does it.”

NOTE: You can visit the Northeast Community Center website to inquire about donating spices or pantry condiments.

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