Art Student Launches Food Drive for Community

POSTED ON: July 1, 2022

Orchid Sylvester collecting food

During her sophomore year, rising junior Orchid Sylvester was attending The Cooper Union on scholarship and living rent-free in exchange for her work as a resident assistant. Although she herself had faced numerous obstacles to get to The Cooper Union, by her sophomore year she recognized her own relative privilege compared to people struggling with food insecurity. 

It was at that point she decided to start her own food drive, collecting food from her fellow classmates to donate for the winter holiday season. Once she had accrued enough donations, she contacted a local group that accepts excess food and who directed her to leave the donations at her local fire station where they were to be picked up. Unfortunately, the comestibles were taken later than the intended goal, so she decided to rejigger her plan in the same grassroots manner she had started it: she set up a table outside the Foundation Building and began distributing to anyone—Cooper student or not—who needed food. She's had a number of logistical problems in making the food drive work, but she's learning from them, and is determined to make this a regular event so no student or neighbor has to go without a meal.

Orchid, who is an art student, points out that hunger is caused by multiple factors, not least of which is the high cost of housing. "Housing insecurity is something people are closer to experiencing than ever before, whether they realize it or not," she says. "I've been reflecting on my own vulnerable moments with school, life, and the state of the world."

The food drive is not meant to address the needs of Cooper students alone, but to alleviate hunger for anyone in the neighborhood. That contact between Cooper and the East Village, Orchid believes, is critical: she feels the school should function as a resource for the community. Eventually, she plans to work with other organizations and people to address the same or similar issues.

She has been involved in community organizations in her hometown, where she volunteered with the Newark NAACP Act-SO branch, worked with the Newark Print Shop, and still connects with her community at Arts High School. As an artist, she prefers to describe herself as "someone who likes to make things" as opposed to someone committed to a particular genre of art. One of her concerns about art-making—as opposed to the food drive—is that by its nature, art is a mediated message. "I'm concerned about a lack of authentic connection. A food drive is direct action and works differently from merely talking about these issues. This is a stepping stone."

“I’m not going to give up on this," she says. "I want this to be a tradition at Cooper.”


  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.