Food Security: The Answer from a Call to Civic Action

Faith Kebekol, Coordinator of Community Service-Learning, Willamette University

April 12, 2018

On March 5, 2018, Willamette University opened the first ever food pantry with the help of leadership from two student coordinators and multiple departments, organizations, and offices across the campus. Under the Office of Community Service-Learning (CSL), two students who serve as Community Engagement Scholars (CES) took on the project of the food pantry after speaking with a couple of friends about their experiences acquiring food while on campus. The purpose of CES are to research and execute ways to make volunteering more accessible to the Willamette community. From hearing about their friend’s experience, the research process began. They first wanted to see what the exact need is for a pantry. After surveying students on Willamette’s campus, the survey proved what the CES already knew: 40% of survey participants had experienced food insecurity at some point in the semester. Last fall semester, the CES hosted a “trial” food pantry in the Community Service office over Thanksgiving Break. This further confirmed the need of a pantry, since it was widely utilized while food services on campus were closed during break.

Next steps were to critically examine how to start up a pantry and specify where food could be sourced from. They interviewed, emailed, visited other food pantries and spoke with students and administration about how it started on their campuses to nail down specific details to initiate the process. To continue this project the students were left with two larger issues to navigate: How will food be supplied and where should the pantry be?

How will food be supplied? As daunting as it may seem, searching for funding to stock the pantry with food was simpler than anticipated. The Community Engagement Scholars were fortunate enough to have funding provided through their own program’s budget, as well as another sustainability grant for Willamette students. After demonstrating need to the grant committee, the students were awarded a few mini grants which would help buy initial food to stock the pantry. The CES hosted two food drives as well which was a huge display of support for the pantry. Willamette faculty, staff, students and others in the surrounding community donated a variety of can goods, bread, milk, eggs, and produce. CES also reached out to Willamette’s student government organization, the Associated Students of Willamette University, or ASWU. After sharing the need and roles of the Bearcat Pantry with ASWU, the representatives of student government agreed to fund supplies in exchange for semester reports, outreach to students, and providing resources and information on food security for students. In addition, Willamette’s graduate Law School was interested in providing this support for their students. The Law School was granted access to the pantry after agreeing to pay a semester fee for its usage.

Where should the pantry be? This question has been a point of debate on campus ever since the idea of a pantry was made public. Campus buy in for the need of a food pantry was relatively easy to gain. Willamette faculty and staff and community were more than willing to donate items in the name of fighting student hunger on campus. What served to be a challenge for the scholars was the location of the pantry. There were very few open spaces on campus that would fit the needs of the pantry. Another logistical detail to figure out was if there would be a phone access, heat, and wifi. The students then had to speak with the director of housing to find a location that would be accomodating of the variety of food but was also safe for students. Communication access via internet and phone was necessary if anything happened. In conversation with the Director of Housing and the Director of Campus Safety, the Bearcat Pantry was placed in an unoccupied dormitory on campus. The location is ideal: it is central to campus, easy to find, spacious enough to provide a wide variety food, has a full size fridge, wifi and phone accessibility, and an adjustable heater. Given other recent office and housing relocations, Housing and Campus Safety has also approved the Pantry to remain in its current location for the following years.

The pantry is still under the coordination of the two Community Engagement Scholars, but fully staffed by student volunteers for 35 hours a week. Since its opening, there have been over 100 student users of the pantry and over 900 donations made. The speed and support of the pantry overall has been the greatest embodiment of Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born”. The trial pantry this past fall was a call to the community for support in making it a structured, reliable source to students. The new Bearcat Pantry now demonstrates the answer to the need. To really get an actual running pantry with consistent donations, funds, hours of operation, and a safe location, it took the action and commitment of multiple offices and departments to do so. The Bearcat Pantry has been the most supported, sustained and collaborative community project on Willamette’s campus in the history of the CSL office.

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