Behind the scenes of the International Food Festival

Hundreds of people file through the Walker Conference Center, drifting from table to table, taking their senses with them on a chaotic journey around the world. What may seem like organized chaos to some actually takes months of planning, preparation and hard work to achieve. Each year during the second half of February Ouachita’s international community puts together the International Food Festival (IFF), a day where students and faculty come together to share various cultures through food and fellowship. Many different dishes are created, volunteers are hard at work keeping everything clean and running smoothly, while performers put their best efforts into showing their talents. Not only is the event the highlight of many people’s spring calendar, it is a great ,way for Ouachita’s international community to share a part of who they are.

Since 2007, the spear-head of this event has been Sharon Cosh, coordinator of the English as a Second Language program.  Cosh has been taking part in IFF since 1984, when her and her husband, Ian Cosh, vice president for community and international engagement, were students at Ouachita.

IFF has not always run as the well-oiled machine that it is today, however. Over the years it has evolved from a not-so-glamorous background. Back when Cosh first got involved, IFF was completely student led. Aside from the help of Campus Ministries, faculty and staff were not involved at all. It was a much smaller event, as well. “We would have about 200 people come through. There were little three-dimensional stations for each country, where people would prepare a little bit of food and share about their country,” Cosh said. “It was very educationally based.”

Unfortunately, the next director of Campus Ministries was not nearly as passionate about the event. “They had no money…no decor…we just had to rethink the whole thing,” Cosh said. At this point, Rene Zimny, past international student and current assistant director of graphic services, stepped in and began moving IFF in a positive direction. Cosh, in connection with the Daniel and Betty Jo Grant Center for International Education, took over for him in 2007 and has been directing the event ever since.

Today, the festival has grown significantly, with a  total of 600 people attending last year. Students and staff also broke an Elrod Center record of 1,096 hours of volunteer service for the event, including 62 cooks, 84 volunteers,15 faculty and community table decorators and six behind-the-scenes faculty members.

Cosh, along with the IFF committee and the International Club president manage all of the logistics for the event. The committee is made up of roughly 15 student and faculty volunteers who begin meeting once a week from October to February. Week by week they put together the different parts of the event. “I don’t think people realize how much hustling goes into this event,” Cosh said.

The main part of coordinating the event involved managing the various committees, which are divided into different categories, including:  food preparation, volunteers, entertainment, décor, sponsorship, community involvement and publicity.

The food preparation is largely done by the individual students who sign-up to cook. The Grant Center sponsors each student $50 to cover costs for his or her meal. International students, staff and faculty, as well as students who have studied abroad, sign up online to prepare dishes from their respective countries. On the day of the festival, the cooks can bring their food to be stored in safe and sanitary conditions before being served at the event.

Part of the food preparation team’s job is also planning how event attendees will receive and eat the food.  Gail Lange-Smith, a junior, dietetics major and catering coordinator on the IFF committee, explained how many moving parts are involved in the event. “I’m in charge of making sure that all the plates and cutlery are ordered. I also sort out deals with Sodexo on what they will donate…and then figure out what [the Grant Center] will pay for,” Lange-Smith said. “I also receive all the food when people bring it in, as well as reheating it and making sure it’s all sanitary and organized.”

Lange-Smith enjoys being a part of the event, but also acknowledges that there are a lot of challenges involved. “I think it’s fun for all of us to be able to showcase our foods and culture…I like being one of the people that puts that together,” she said. “On the other hand it’s very time consuming. People don’t realize how much organizing and moving parts there are to it.”

Beyond just the organization that goes into the event, there is also a lot of history and sentimental value behind IFF, which is seen through the décor. When people travel, they bring things with them from their home countries, as well as things collected from the different places and cultures they have encountered. Part of the educational aspect of IFF is decorating the table with collections from around the world. These carry emotional and personal value to many who organize and attend the event.

“I know there are a lot of people in our community who have stuff they would love to show, so I thought it was time to involve these people and let them tell a little bit about who they are and where they are from,” Cosh said.

Cosh recalled a South Korean international student who died soon after graduating and had left a box of items for decorating at the IFF. “Every year when we put [her belongings] up, we remember her and South Korea. She will never be forgotten,” Cosh said. “There are sweet memories that go with every piece on a table…they all have a story.”

IFF provides the community with a chance to get involved and put a spotlight on those who have traveled from all around the world to end up in the Arkadelphia community. “[Foreign students] realize they are part of an international community that is respected and honored, where they can have a sense of belonging,” Cosh said.

The 2017 International Food Festival will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 5:30 p.m. in Walker Conference Center. Tickets are $5 each at the door. You don’t want to miss it!


– By AJ Stambolie, student writer

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