It started with library student workers.
We noticed that some of them were skipping meals, not eating, or out of meal swipes (ID card “swipes” tied to the university’s dining plan). It was a combination of several factors: being over-scheduled with classes, navigating between their library job and a second job, long commutes, and money. Typical issues that almost any U.S. college student has to deal with these days. And for anyone complaining that younger folks have it “easy”…yeah, just stop with that nonsense.
Our library marketing/events team* started brainstorming the issue. We had long had a “snack drawer” for student workers, but wanted to do more. What started with just student workers ended up being rolled out to any student. Aware that nothing else at the time (more on that later) was being done on campus about food insecurity and college students, we started a food pantry.
Starting the Food Pantry
The library’s Info Commons is a high-traffic area that houses research help, study space, librarians’ offices, and a busy computer lab. It also houses a rotating book tower. This book tower was often neglected and we struggled to find time to put together an interesting or eye-catching display. Realizing we weren’t getting the best potential out of it, we co-opted it for our food pantry. We had discussions on where to place it. Some staff felt that by putting it in a high-traffic area, people who feel shame (for lack of better word) about using a food pantry might avoid it. On the other hand, if it’s not visible, how do people find out about it? It can definitely be a balancing act, but we chose to keep it in the high-traffic area.
To stock it, we first asked staff for donations of non-perishable items. One of our librarians, Meghan, came up with our guiding philosophy of “take what you need, give when you can.” This means that if you’re in need, take something–no questions asked. When you want to “pay it forward” then drop off a donation. That’s why we refer to it as a “food share” on our campus. We also strongly felt that the food pantry should be unmediated. With sensitive issues such as food insecurity, people may feel embarrassed to ask for help. The food pantry is self-service. We promote it as judgment-free zone. It doesn’t matter if you’re out of money for meals or you’ve had back-to-back classes and you just need something quick from the pantry to nourish yourself. It’s there for you.
I took a “ask forgiveness, not permission” approach to this. You know what’s best at your institution, so this approach may not be appropriate for you. I informed my direct supervisor that we were starting the food pantry and then I let word of mouth take hold. We did a soft roll out by simply making the items available on the book tower starting in January 2019. Students began using it right away and donated items would “magically” appear on the shelves, reflecting our “take what you need, give when you can” philosophy. So it works! In hindsight, I should have approached our wonderful Student Affairs staff about partnering on this. Instead, they wanted to know more about what we were doing. Over the summer, we collaborated with Student Affairs who brought the library’s idea campus-wide. Their expertise helped us expand the project by adding two additional university locations: one in the student union and one at a branch campus facility. Our Student Affairs staff also helped sustain the project for the long-term–something that is a concern about food pantries. The university’s chaplain will coordinate efforts and our Institutional Advancement folks set up an online giving form for employees, alumni, and the community to donate monetarily.
When starting a food pantry, you may come across folks who feel that a service such as this does not teach students “self-reliance.” First of all, eff that. We’re here to meet students where they are. At my institution, we have an ethos that centers on respect, integrity, and stewardship. Cultivating and caring for our students is one of those hallmarks. Another potential criticism relates to the increasing cost of higher education in the United States. If tuition and textbooks weren’t so high, then food pantries across college campuses might not be needed. I can’t argue with that–but I’m simply working in the moment right now. Lastly, another typical criticism is that a food pantry does not relate to the academic library’s mission. I disagree. We strive for an academic library where students feel welcomed. It becomes a second or third home for them. For students to succeed academically, we need to care for them in a holistic manner. If students aren’t living a life of wellness, it’s hard to succeed academically.
What to Stock in a Food Pantry…and Going Beyond Food
This will be dependent on your population, but we have seen the following items move quickly:
- granola bars/fruit bars
- packages of raisins, dried fruit, nuts
- peanut butter
- individual servings of noodle cups, ramen, mac n cheese–anything ready to go
- Soup cups that can be microwaved
- toaster pastries (like Pop Tarts)
- pudding cups
- fruit cups (like Dole)
As for what has been slow to move?: Canned goods and boxes of dried pasta (e.g. penne, etc…). Our population doesn’t do much cooking.
We limit to non-perishable items. However, ventures like campus/community gardens could provide fresh veggie/fruit options.
People bringing in donations wanted to know if we could expand beyond food and we said, “YES!” Popular non-food items include:
- bath soap
- laundry detergent/laundry pods
Also important: We have found that most students do not want to take an entire box of something (tampons, Pop Tarts, granola bars), so we generally just open up those boxes and place the individually wrapped items from those boxes on the shelf. Those move much more quickly.
- Article about our food share
- Food for Thought: Academic Libraries are Fighting Campus Food Insecurity with Onsite Pantries – American Libraries, 1 May 2019
- College & University Food Bank Alliance
*Credit to the Library Marketing/Events Team:
- Rachel Aten, Library Business Manager
- Meghan Dowell, Teaching & Learning Librarian
- Denise Friestedt, Circulation Manager
- Joe Hardenbrook, Director of Library Services