Drive to help needy sparks can-do attitude

If food is one of life's building blocks, imagine what can be constructed from canned food.

Eight students from Anne Arundel Community College put their heads and hands together Friday, as part of a charity food drive, and came up with replicas of a national memorial, a New York skyscraper and an Italian Renaissance villa.


All these budding architects needed was a bit of packing tape, cardboard, plywood -- and about 7,000 cans of food -- for the three structures to take shape at Arundel Mills mall.

It's not construction -- it's "Canstruction," part of a nationwide event organized by the Society of Design Administration in New York to fight hunger.


"I will probably not look at a can of Spam the same way again," said Cathy L. Holstrom, executive director of Food Link, the largest hunger-relief and food-rescue organization in Anne Arundel County and a co-sponsor of the local Canstruction effort.

The Canstruction event at Arundel Mills, the first held in Maryland, is part of the ninth annual competition, held from July 1 this year through June 30 of next year.

The idea is to bring a fresh, creative awareness to hunger issues. Participating architects, engineers and other professionals in the construction industry build a variety of structures -- from cars and giant animals to historic buildings -- from canned food, then donate the items to food banks.

Last year, 409 structures were built in 45 cities, amounting to 1.175 million pounds of donated food.

For the Arundel Mills project, eight architecture students in the associate's degree program at Anne Arundel Community College built replicas of the Jefferson Memorial, the Chrysler Building and the Villa Rotunda in the food court. These structures, on display through Dec. 12, range up to 10 feet long, 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall.

Presented in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season at one of Maryland's busiest shopping centers, "this event will provide a great deal of exposure for such a worthy cause," said Gene Condon, general manager of Arundel Mills.

The students said they found the project -- considered a hands-on effort that included developing designs for structures and building them -- a gratifying, almost primal, experience.

"It's like the cavemen working with stone," said Kate Graf, 49, who designed the plan for the Jefferson Memorial. "You have to work with the materials with your hands."


Architects typically don't construct buildings; they design them. The idea that students could be the brains and the braun of a design project served to get them involved in Canstruction, said Robert Lowe, a professor of architecture and interior design at AACC.

In years past, students would be asked to work on a "theoretic project with theoretical conclusions" -- to tailor a building plan that would accommodate the needs of a potential client, Lowe said. Normally, "they wouldn't be exposed to these structural issues until you got into the work force," he said.

"The whole thing of having to be exact -- that's an issue," said David Hathcock, 20, who designed the Villa Rotunda. He added that the "importance of precision" has made the building process "stressful."

One issue that Food Link brought up in the design meetings was Red Bull. The product's slender, metallic can was a design favorite. But the nutritional value of the energy drink didn't win over the food bank.

So, in an exercise that mirrors the professional experience, the students went back to the drawing board at least three times.

The emphasis on real-world learning is one in which the college has invested for nearly a decade. In 2000, the college created the Center for Learning Through Service, which draws on community partners to bring a real-world experience to the curriculum.


"We need community partners and agencies to know that if they have a need for a volunteer, they have a resource," said Cathleen Doyle, the program coordinator for the Center of Learning Service.

Holstrom, whose organization supports more than 100 charitable organizations, had tried to pull off a Canstruction event for a couple of years, but got little support from anyone until she attended an AACC workshop in May. Soon after, the architecture and interior design department became excited about the possibilities of Canstruction in the classroom.

Once a foundation for the project was established, food started pouring in from grocery stores, along with financial and technical support from architecture and construction firms.

As a result, Holstrom said, the cans used at Arundel Mills will yield more than 1,000 bags of food for individual families.