To hear Naomi Maisel tell it, she’s just a laid-back California girl who wants to surf and hike.
But to the faculty, staff and classmates who know her best, she’s the energetic and driven student who built an organization that saves about 1,000 pounds of potentially wasted food every month, then converts it into healthy meals for those in need.
They also noticed Maisel remained a top student while finding time to serve as a research assistant on a food insecurity project at the CDC, work with Volunteer Emory on various efforts, and serve as an orientation leader for new students.
So while she remains in awe of the peers she says embody the “live hard, play hard” mantra she claims to lack, Maisel is this year's winner of the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award.
The McMullan Award, made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, honors not just Maisel's exceptional leadership so far. It also telegraphs to the world that the Emory community expects great things from her in the future.
The award also comes with $25,000 — no strings attached.
“I didn’t come to Emory thinking I’d get involved in Atlanta,” the San Diego native says. “My parents raised me to do good for others. And at Emory, you could see the wealth, and I found it was juxtaposed with the poverty right down the street.”
If that was the divide, Maisel knew that food could bridge the gap.
Her interest in food began when she started making her own dinners after becoming a vegetarian when she started high school. Some of her warmest family memories are talking about her day over dinner with her mother, stepfather and four siblings.
“I believe food is a human right that is denied to many because of inequality,” Maisel says. “I want people to understand that it is most often injustice that acts as a barrier between food and people.”
Creating Campus Kitchens
Maisel saw those barriers firsthand working with Volunteer Emory at the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
When she later began donating her time at the Intown Collaborative Ministries food pantry — a smaller operation that fed her desire to connect with people by allowing her to take applications and talk with those in need — she saw a simple act that drove home her convictions.
One client removed a jar of high-protein peanut butter from his own bag and gave it to a small family, saying their need was greater.
At about the same time, she watched in horror at Dobbs Market as piles of untouched food landed in the garbage from busy students.
“We were throwing away so much food and we’re right down the street from people willing to give what little they have to someone else,” Maisel says.
The experience prompted an idea she presented to Dave Furhman, head of Emory Campus Dining. Could the campus somehow donate unused food, rather than throw it away?
Furhman, who had been at Emory just a few weeks when he met Maisel in 2013, steered her to a program he knew from his previous job at Johns Hopkins University: Campus Kitchens Project.
Campus Kitchens helps students recover food from university dining venues that otherwise would be wasted and then prepare and deliver meals to community organizations fighting hunger.
Maisel was starting from scratch. She would need to launch a chapter, secure funding for a freezer and other equipment, somehow convince other students to take the time to cook and help on the project, and also get certified to handle the food.
“Anyone who is excited and motivated to do good would be bored by all that administrative stuff,” Furhman says. “But Naomi is so wonderfully impatient. It took maybe three months and we started a pilot program the next semester.”
Encouraging peers to lead
Campus Kitchens Emory has now grown in detail and scope. Dozens of student volunteers collect unused food from the DUC, Cox Dining Hall and Earth Fare, then decide on the recipes that will make healthy and nutritious meals to deliver, frozen, at four Atlanta-area pantries.
Maisel credits the teamwork among a growing number of dedicated students and assistance from staff and faculty for the project’s success. Fellow senior Rebecca Lichtenstein, a history major, helped get the organization on its feet and face everyday challenges, Maisel says.
Those challenges are as simple as what a day’s haul might be. One day recently, it was hot dogs, couscous and zucchini. The prepared meal the student volunteers decided on was a healthy salad, with some bite-sized protein.
Maisel remains involved in the group but cultivated a full board — nine students hailing from Hong Kong to Atlanta, with majors from psychology to biology — who will keep the mission going after she graduates.
Several mentors pointed to her decision to step down as president as a sign of her ability to not just motivate but empower and support others.
“Naomi has learned that leadership is not just about having a good idea or advocating well,” says Peggy Barlett, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology, who taught Maisel in several courses. “I think where she really stands out is realizing that leadership is linking arms with others and nurturing their passions.”
"Everything she does, it's with the thought for others"
Maisel’s own passions have remained centered around food, even as she wavered between a health and anthropology degree. Both programs examine her driving issue — food insecurity and nutrition — from very different viewpoints.
But even though she will graduate with an anthropology degree, Maisel continued to take many human health courses and has left an imprint in the sciences, says Jill Welkley, an associate professor of human health who has taught her.
It was in Welkley’s human health class that Maisel first made an impression on her professor. Part of the assignment was to interview researchers and then communicate their work for a broader audience.
That researcher later wrote Welkley, praising the student who was so professional and yet managed to make the work personal. Maisel, Welkley said, had managed to take the academic engagement from its traditional classroom setting to another level — to her peers and community — all on her own.
“Everything she does, it’s with the thought for others,” says Welkley, who gathered more than a dozen nominations for the McMullan Award from across campus for Maisel. “That’s just a thread that runs through her and it shows in everything she does.”
Maisel’s next steps are, for the first time in years, a little unclear. She plans to earn a master’s of public health but wants to take a year off to decide her focus. She may work in a hunger nonprofit or with a group promoting farmworker justice. She also expects to continue her CDC research into the link between food insecurity and diabetes.
Working up close on hunger issues has made her more determined to change the system for the better, much has she has on Emory’s campus.
The McMullan winnings, she said, will be on hold to pay for the degree she thinks best helps her accomplish that.
“I truly believe there are so many other students on campus who could earn this award,” she says. “So I want to honor the award and them as best I can. If people have this kind of faith in me, I realize I better really do something. I am kind of overwhelmed by the opportunity, which is a great place to be.”