The CMU Pantry is committed to reducing hunger among students by providing nutritious food for free; improved food accessibility means an overall healthier campus community that can flourish.
Brought to fruition by the Graduate Student Assembly’s Basic Needs Working Group and the Campus Food Insecurity Committee, the pantry opened on November 9, 2018 and served 60 plus students in its first two weeks.
What Is “Food Insecurity” and How Did CMU Address It?
In January 2017, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB) commissioned the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development to conduct the following study: Needs Assessment of Collegiate Food Insecurity in SW Pennsylvania: The Campus Cupboard Study.
This study’s findings demanded action. The study itself centered around 11 Pittsburgh-area colleges, including Carnegie Mellon University. Within the CMU community, 19 percent of students were found to be “food insecure.” According to the USDA, food security means “access to all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” By this definition, 19 percent of students didn’t have access or enough resources to eat what’s considered a base-level, healthy amount of food.
In the fall of 2017, the CMU Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) created a Basic Needs Working Group, in response to the concern of some graduate students; their inaugural issue was tackling food insecurity. Particularly for graduate students, there are many who have certain visas, or receive certain government aid, which prohibits work outside of research. This makes it difficult to earn a living income, especially if there are spouses or children to support. By conducting extensive research and making their own pantry proposal, the Basic Needs Working Group served as a model for the Campus Food Insecurity Committee (created spring of 2018).
Campus Food Insecurity Committee’s first order of business was creating The CMU Pantry – it was unanimously agreed upon as the quickest and easiest method for addressing food need.
How Does the Pantry Work?
Some food scarcity (or lack of nutritious foods) is an issue of affordability. In other cases, students don’t have convenient access to stores, and therefore don’t make regular shopping trips.
The CMU Pantry is located on the first floor of the Residence on Fifth. You don’t need to demonstrate need—all CMU students are welcome to use the pantry for bi-weekly trips. Registration takes place on the first visit, and the set-up is like a grocery store, meaning students can pick what they want for themselves. The pantry is stocked with a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as non-perishables like rice, canned goods and pastas.
The pantry’s hours for the Spring 2019 semester are Thursday 4:00-6:00 p.m., Friday 12:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and Saturday 2:00-4:00 p.m. You can also email the pantry coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment on a Monday or Wednesday.
Let’s See How This Goes: Documenting My First Pantry Trip
I met with William Coggins, Pantry Coordinator, on a Wednesday afternoon. William is a first-year master’s student, studying Information Systems Management with a focus in Business Intelligence and Data Analytics. He’s the face of the Pantry and the person in charge of scheduling volunteer shifts and keeping on top of inventory.
“The pantry exists to offer aid to individual students who find themselves lacking resources,” William said. “We’re an outlet to provide the basic necessities.”
William kindly walked me step-by-step through the process of registering at the pantry.
On an iPad the pantry provides, I logged in with my Andrew ID to fill out a survey. Some questions include: Do you receive financial aid? Or, how many people are you shopping for? This kind of data helps them know who they’re serving, and what needs they’re addressing across the board.
I filled out a hard-copy form to keep track of my trips to the pantry. You list your name and your Andrew ID, and there’s also space to write the names of individuals who can shop in your place. For instance, if you have an aunt or a cousin in your household who can shop on your behalf (not roommates). There’s also an attached sheet, where pantry volunteers log the dates you visit (bi-weekly at most). The pantry keeps these forms on file for you.
Walk-Through and Shopping
William walked me around the room and explained the number of items I could take from each section. He shared some important information that’s not on any of the signs—for example, vegetarians and vegans can have three cans of beans, instead of two. He also explained that there’s a section of “personal goods” which includes toothbrushes, toilet paper, paper towels, deodorant and more. Although primarily a food resource, the pantry aims to serve the students however it can with whatever variety of donations it receives.
I was provided a basket and a laminated list of food categories. I could pick whatever items I wanted, as long as I consulted the clearly marked limits for each section (signs on every shelf make it easy). Then I returned to the front table, where my food was measured by William (so they can see, on average, how much each student is consuming). He provided me with a donated, reusable bag. They encourage students to bring reusable bags, but have plastic bags and other donated bags on-hand.
On the iPad, I filled out a quick follow-up survey for feedback. Question included: What foods would you like to see here? Or, do you have any suggestions to make this experience better? I wrote that eggs would be a good food to offer, if possible (a source of protein I eat a lot of).
I was happy to see that there were essentials like milk, soups and pasta available. I also decided last minute to get some squash from a produce cart (options rotate depending on what’s given). There’s a miscellaneous section, which includes all the donations the pantry receives that don’t fit a specific category of kitchen “staples,” but still need to be moved off the shelves. This is where I got the banana bread mix. There’s also a category of expired foods; there are tons of non-perishable foods that are still consumable for months after their expiration dates. From this shelf, I helped myself to a box of graham crackers.
The CMU Pantry obviously doesn’t have the scope of a normal grocery store—it’s only meant to supplement students with the basics for consistent meals, and every offering is a donation.
It made me think of the food waste we’re all guilty of, due to ambiguous expiration dates or perishables we buy but forget to use. It’s nice to know that this resource exists for when money is tight between paychecks, or when I don’t have as much time as I’d like to get to the grocery store. And it’s nice that this resource is available to all students, whatever their situation may be.
William told me about some of the goals for the pantry as it settles and expands, and what he’s learned in the first few weeks.
The CMU Pantry will stay at the Residence on Fifth for two years, until it can become a more permanent fixture, with some enhanced capacities (like better freezers for optimal food storage).
“The pantry will ideally expand the services it provides, with foods that are inclusive to all kinds of dietary restrictions.”
William says the pantry could grow to be “more culturally relevant” in terms of providing a wider palate of foods to better serve the international student body at CMU.
William’s learned a lot about food distribution and labeling, but he also thinks he’s grown as a person. “There’s a lot of soft skills you have to learn; you realize there are a number of places students are in when coming to the pantry.” For example, one student’s phone was broken and it interfered with his ability to login and complete the surveys. Obviously, William didn’t turn the student away—the pantry’s number one priority is to help, which means adjusting to different situations.
After my successful shopping trip, I plan to visit the pantry again in the coming semester.
Want to get involved?
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