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Students fashion reusable bags for community food pantry

Three faculty members and a staffer show off colorful shopping bags at the food bank.
Showcasing student-made shopping bags at the Community Food pantry are from left, AMDT faculty members Hang Liu, Carol Salusso, food bank coordinator Ashley Vaughan, and AMDT assistant professor Chanmi Hwang.

The pasta, fruit and vegetables in CJ’s new shopping bag will feed her family until payday. And that new bag is more than stylish and reusable: it means more groceries for the other 250 families who depend on the Community Food pantry.

Working with the Washington State University Center for Civic Engagement, students in the WSU Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles created the bags this fall as a dual class project. Teams of students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, learned to track down quality used textiles and assemble a real product, at the same time gaining lessons in community service.

“This is wonderful,” said CJ, who selected a sturdy beige bag with a subtle pattern of apples, grapes and pears from a table at Community Food, the emergency pantry run by staff and volunteers of the Pullman Community Action Center.

Dozens of other personalized bags, from denim to floral to geometric patterns, each one signed by AMDT students, were filled with food by Community Food patrons in early October.

“I love them! They’re just the perfect size,” said food bank volunteer Jan Limburg.

“Our clients will love them, too.”

Every reusable bag means more groceries that Community Food can afford to buy, said Family Services Manager Barbara Mays. By eliminating disposable shopping bags, the pantry saves around $3,000 a year. That translates to more food for the 700 or so people who rely on it every month. At the same time, the reusable bags reduce disposable sacks out of the waste stream, helping the environment.

A project that matters

“This was a test of our students’ skills,” said Associate Professor Carol Salusso. Motivated to help others, “the students were enthusiastic to connect how they can apply what they’re learning in their Apparel Assembly 211 class to meet community needs.”

Galatia France, a junior in AMDT, helped gather materials as part of her Textiles 210 class with Assistant Professor Hang Liu, and then sewed bags together with Salusso in the 211 course.

“I got to sew, something I love to do, and help people in need at the same time,” she said.

Students sourced fabric from thrift stores and past AMDT student projects. Durable materials that can hold the weight of cans and dry goods were especially in demand. When possible, students reused materials like drapes and tablecloths.

Finished bags on the table at the food pantry,
A finished shopping bag.

“I wanted to make a quality bag, so I chose sturdy fabric and sewed it strong,” said France. “The family who gets it will be able to use this bag for a long time.”

Each bag features a digitally printed textile label that includes the AMDT-designed WSU tartan. Every student added a signature to the label in waterproof pen.

“That way, food bank patrons know who made their bags,” said Assistant Professor Chanmi Hwang. “It’s a great way for our students to build connections to the community.”

“This project changed my perspective on how much fun community service can be,” said student RobbiAnn Cabaniero-Buendia, a junior who learned about the food bank and the people it serves.

“Giving back is vital in any city, big or small,” said France. “I’ve always wanted to help people through my passion for sewing and fashion. I’m glad AMDT took the opportunity to help.”

She plans to explore other sewing projects that help the community, “and keep doing it wherever I end up in the world.”

AMDT’s reusable bag project continues next spring, when new students enroll in both classes. They hope to add a textile design feature next semester. The plan, says Hwang, is for students to design their own labels, adding an extra personal touch.

With every student-made bag now in the hands of families, Mays hopes that patrons bring them back next month.

“That’s the real test,” she said.