When Sarah Girgis (C ‘24) was a freshman, her room in the Quad wasn’t exactly a state–of–the–art kitchen. Yet, armed with a hand mixer and an extra desk, she made cookie dough in her dorm, earning her the hall title of resident baker.
As a senior, Sarah is able to extend her passion for food to the city as a whole. From providing meals for homeless shelters to running an edible cookie dough business, food is her way of building community. Like any good baker, Sarah is all for experimentation. She loves inventing new cookie dough flavors from ingredients in her fridge. She is unafraid, starting a club that got removed from the Penn Clubs roster for breaking the Penn Dining contract. In the end, her food–related efforts are a vehicle for one goal: providing the essential resources of love and happiness to other people.
Name: Sarah Girgis
Hometown: Princeton, New Jersey
Major: Health and societies with a concentration in public health
Minors: Chemistry and nutrition
Where did the idea for Operation Meal Forward begin?
I started the club at the beginning of last year. It came out of a conversation I had with my professor for URBS 2850—Health on the Urban Margins. I was just telling him how, when you're walking on 40th and Walnut—or just anywhere on the corners of campus—you notice how many homeless people there are. And sometimes I feel like, to what extent as students can we help them or give them the resources that they need? The professor really emphasized the idea that people need resources.
My sophomore year, I was accumulating the sandwiches and sides from Gourmet Grocer and freezing them in my refrigerator. At the end of the semester, I took them all out, defrosted them, and my friends and I brought them all around Philly. I wanted to make it a Penn thing, so I started a club. Long story short, I got in trouble with Penn Dining, because it was against the contract to take other people's food even though they were giving it to us voluntarily. So our club got off of Penn Clubs. We reapplied this year, and we've been interacting with nonprofits like Sharing Excess and Philly Food Rescue. We're going to be getting fresh, free produce from them and making fresh homemade meals, giving them to the most food insecure shelters via the Bethesda Project, our partner. The whole goal is to have healthy meals. It's so easy to give $1, but then people choose what’s the most that they can get for their money, which would usually be high–calorie, energy–dense foods and whatnot. So [our project] kind of promotes a healthy lifestyle.
After everything that happened with Penn Dining, are you back on Penn Clubs?
We are. It's been a really cool experience. Because the thing is, the worst thing that could happen is you fail, right? We kind of have a responsibility as students to try and the worst thing that could happen is fail. So yeah, it's been a roller coaster, but I feel like I've been learning a lot about how starting something works.
What are your thoughts on how Penn, as an institution with strong food influences, interacts with Philly and the residents here?
In our meeting with Penn Dining, they did say that they blast–freeze the food that they have and give it to nonprofits. That’s great. It’s just that Penn is also posed as a nonprofit and they don't pay PILOTS, and their way of giving back is just through student–led interventions like tutoring in West Philly.
Of course I don't know the full extent of it, but I definitely feel like there's more that we can do, especially since we've been struggling a lot to find support or advisorship for this club. We still don't really have a Penn connection to help us lead this project. So it makes me think, where's the food justice support from Penn? We're very privileged, but are we also helping? We literally see that there's homeless people outside and instead of brushing them away, how can we help them?
And especially with the McDonald's now [a longtime McDonald’s location closed in Jan. 2023 to make way for redevelopment into a Penn office building], that McDonald's was such a hub for so many homeless people. Now that's going to be a Penn building, it's going to limit a safe haven for these people. McDonald's was open 24/7. I’m not saying that McDonald's is the best food option, but it was something that people could sit inside of. So I think about that when I think about Penn's connection with the homeless community.
What are your hopes for how the club will change and grow after you graduate?
I want the club to be sustainable. I want it to continue from year to year. I really think we have committed members. My hope is to just continue having consistency with making meals and having all members enjoy it. We really want to try to do a celebration since Bethesda does celebrations with some of the homeless individuals. I think it's important to know the population you're serving by interacting with them. There's a lot of stereotypes with homeless people. We want to get to know them and bring humanity into the equation. So I hope that we have passionate people who care about getting to know them and who believe in the mission because I think it's a really fun thing, and it teaches us how to cook too.
On a related note, I heard you have a passion for baking.
Yes! I have a baking business, Culbazini. That started when I was younger. I've always had a sweet tooth. I asked my mom to go to the baking aisle in the grocery store, and I would do the box cake mix. Then my parents took out our cable TV, so I started watching Cake Boss, a bunch of YouTube videos, Rosanna Pansino, Bigger Bolder Baking—all the baking people. In fifth grade, I started making cakes. My parents were kind of shocked that I was able to do all that at such a young age. And it stuck with me. Whenever we had family gatherings at Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, I would always make a cake. I would sketch out my cake first and look online on Pinterest for ideas, but I wanted to do something different. I loved sculpting, carving the cake, not just piping all the time. I'm such a visual person, so I liked the idea of 3D cakes. For example, I made a Santa Claus cake of him upside down going into a chimney. I did an igloo cake and a Christmas tree cake.
My favorite cake I did was two years ago for my grandma's birthday. My grandpa passed away like before I was born, but he was really good at painting oil paintings with texture. So I recreated one of his paintings as a cake. And it was so hard—this cake took me days and there are so many colors involved, but it was just such a great project.
Can you tell me more about your baking business?
When I got to college, I realized that I don't have as much time to make cakes for people. So I started getting into edible cookie dough, and I now have a whole menu for edible cookie dough. For example, we have cookies and cream, and we’re about to add this one to the menu called Simsim Remix. Simsim means sesame in Arabic and it's basically a sesame–flavored piece of cookie dough. I love it because I'm literally in my dorm room, trying to think of new ideas based on the ingredients I have. I had tahini in my refrigerator, so I made use of that.
I also have a mystery flavor as one of the menu items. If someone orders it, that encourages me to do something new. I love doing cookie dough because it's a good way of making community throughout Penn. I get to meet a lot of new people just by telling people in my class, "Hey, I do cookie dough if you want to order." I try to use the money that I get from Culbazini towards other things like Operation Meal Forward, especially since we don't have funding.
You said that you’re Coptic Orthodox Christian. How does baking relate to your faith?
Being Coptic is an important part of my identity. We’re the indigenous people of Egypt. With me having a sweet tooth, I wanted to make vegan stuff so I could eat while I was fasting. So [baking] helped me connect with the Coptic community. Because it’s vegan, it’s also more accessible for people who have dietary restrictions.
There's not a lot of Coptic people on campus. Part of the reason why I did cookie dough was to have my own community and make friends through that. Especially in a time when I’m looking for my identity since I can’t relate to that many people culturally.
What do you enjoy most about running a cookie dough business?
The overall best part about Culbazini is not just the process of sketching out a cake, executing it, or thinking of a new flavor for cookie dough. It's when you finish your product and it has its label and you give it to the person—when the person sees it, how happy they are. It's just the best compliment when someone's like, "It's so good, I can't wait to order again." It's the best thing ever when you can bring happiness to someone. I think that also connects with my other clubs in that the whole idea is to provide a resource, and love and happiness is a really needed resource for everyone.
Favorite place to eat around campus? Marrakesh.
Favorite movie? The Pink Panther 2.
No-skip album? Death of a Bachelor by Panic! at the Disco
Best place on campus to study? 13th floor of Gutmann. I come at 3am, and I see the whole sunrise.
There are two types of people at Penn…I know a lot of people say this, but those who walk on Locust to go to class and those who don’t.
And you are?
I really like Philly. It is the poorest biggest city in America, and I think that says a lot about what goes on in Philly. To get a better idea of what the city is like, I like walking on the street and seeing how students and non–students interact. I think a lot of times we live in a Penn bubble, so it’s a little bit of a way for me to absorb the city.