Creating Civic Action with Students Facing Food Insecurity

Amy Koeckes, Associate Director Student Engagement, University of Nevada, Reno

March 18, 2019

According to the CLDE Theory of Change, Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) efforts should be cultivating change on campuses. Through the framework, we transform through civic action by working in a pluralistic society and world, to improve the quality of people’s lives and take risks to achieve a greater public good. Our food pantry is a great example of changing its vision to meet the future of CLDE work on college campuses. 

In 2011, The ASUN Center for Student Engagement (CSE) at the University of Nevada, Reno started running the food pantry on campus. After four years we could see the model our campus had been using for years was not working.  In this model, students had to make appointments with full-time staff who were often busy and we had a small pantry space that could only hold non-perishable goods.  We knew we needed to change.  It was our vision that students would visit our pantry just like they would visit tutoring centers when they needed help.    

Below are nine ways we have transformed our pantry to a civic minded service:

  1. Hide in plain sight. Place your pantry in a high student traffic area on campus.  By creating a civic inclusion setting you are breaking down food insecurity stigma by normalizing the use of a pantry.     

  2. Change your name and expand your offerings.  Students don’t want to say “I am going to a food pantry” to others; find a name that brands your program as something students would tell others about. Also, don’t limit yourself to just food. Students need toiletries, school supplies, and kitchen goods, which is another good reason to change your name from a “food pantry”.  In 2016, we changed our name to Pack Provisions and started offering toiletries, school supplies, and household items.

  3. Collect data on your campus and share it.  The USDA has a six item short form survey if you are looking for a place to start.  We have used the same six questions alongside others in a campus wide survey in 2016 and in 2018, where we found out that 22% of our students self-identified as being food insecure.  We have shared this data with our students, faculty, administration, and the community. 

  4. Expand your resource list to help build agency in your students.   Students will be coming to you as they are in need.  Gather a list of local resources in your community and give it to the visitors. This list should include housing, rental, utility, medical, transportation and food assistance programs in your community. 

  5. Understand the SNAP process in your community.  In December 2018, the federal government acknowledged food insecurity as a problem for American college students in a report titled "FOOD INSECURITY: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits”.  In this report, they said that the SNAP process is confusing for college students and the national agency needs to work better with the regional offices to get information out to college students.   I recommend making your own flyer for your campus to help break down the process. 

  6. Work with your student clubs. Clubs love helping out the community. Have them run food drives on your campus and in the community. This helps them start to understand their civic inclusion around food insecurity.  Make sure you have a list of items you want to get otherwise, you could end up with a lot of canned corn and green beans.

  7. Find community allies to build civic motivations.  Just by telling your story, you will find supporters. Work with your on-campus marketing office to have them write a story that you can share on and off campus. From a story we had in Fall 2018,  we had 2 local news stations interview and highlight the program.   This story has helped to bring awareness and has opened additional partnerships with our local community.   

  8. Work with anyone you can. If you get a call from a local business wanting to donate 200 meals a day, Don’t turn it down. Find a way to work together to make it work for the both of you.  In the summer of 2018, we had a local Burger King franchise reach out wanting to donate 200 meals a day.  We knew we couldn’t handle the logistics of that many meals, but we could make 50 meals work twice a week.  We used these 50 meals as an incentive for clubs to let us come into their weekly meetings to talk about our program.

  9. Leave your space.  Take your show on the road to various places on campus.  We started a monthly program called Mobile Mondays, where we set up a farmer market with free produce for students.  This allows students to get to know the program as they are walking to class.  We have also partnered with our on-campus dining provider and they bring out their portable kitchen to cook a dish with a vegetable we are giving away. 

In one year, the University of Nevada, Reno has seen our visits triple to Pack Provisions, going from 284 visits in Spring 2018 to 709 visits in Fall 2018. By changing to a civic engagement mindset, we are helping to decrease food insecurity on our campus. 

Watch Pack Provisions at the University of Nevada, Reno

I would love to hear your thoughts on what else campus pantries are doing to help move towards a more civic minded program.  Comment below or email me at [email protected].

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