Colleges expand food pantries to help students in need

New and expanded free pantries welcomed students back for face-to-face instruction, with some Georgia universities and colleges devoting more resources to address food insecurity.

At Georgia Gwinnett College, for example, the new Care Pantry is now available to anyone who is enrolled at the college and in need. Students can pick up non-perishable goods and staples, including pasta, milk and fruit, as well as frozen and microwaveable meals.

“It’s been a dream of the school for some time. … The need was there, students were raising those concerns,” said Katherine Kyle, associate vice president for human resources at Georgia Gwinnett. “When COVID came about, it exacerbated the situation, and we all knew we have to put something in place now.”

Of Georgia Gwinnett’s 12,830 students, 87% receive financial aid, according to pre-COVID estimates.

Other public colleges and universities across the state are also ramping up campus pantries.

Kennesaw State University received $50,000 from Kroger to expand its Marietta and Kennesaw pantries. The donation helped buy two double-wide freezers and a new refrigerator to store frozen and perishable foods. The new pantries opened in February.

The KSU pantry distributed over 9,000 pounds of food during the 2020-21 academic year and served 281 students regularly. Students can shop for food every two weeks and have unlimited access to toiletries.

The pantries, like others on campuses, require student sign in but do not require proof of income or any financial information.

“A lot of times poverty takes away choice,” said Carrie Olsen, program manager for the college’s Campus Awareness, Resource and Empowerment Services, which runs the pantry. “So moving into a bigger space allows students to come in and choose what they actually want and what they want to eat.”

About 60 students showed up during the first couple weeks of operation, Olsen said, and the pantry, like others, relies entirely on donations.

Each of the pantries is serving a need.

According to a 2021 survey of 195,000 students by Temple University, 34% of respondents cited experiencing food insecurity, while 58% said they had difficulty meeting their basic needs, such as safe housing, healthy food, personal hygiene items, transportation, healthcare and technology.

The survey’s data was collected from 202 colleges and universities, three of which are Georgia-based. That includes Kennesaw State.

At Georgia Gwinnett College, another survey conducted last year found 23.3% of students who responded were “worried whether their food would run out before they could get more.”

The college already had some systems in place to support its students, such Grizzlies Helping Grizzlies program, a student emergency fund that awarded $110,000 in grants to 230 students from May 2020 to August 2021.

That same program also awards students need-based gift cards to grocery stores or tickets for the dining hall.

But without access to transportation or additional funding, that could be an “incomplete resource,” said Dominique Almeida, student affairs coordinator at Georgia Gwinnett.

That’s where the Care Pantry, which is located in the student center and the same building as the counseling center — a strategic placement by the organizing committee — tries to fill the void.

At the start of the semester, students can shop on Tuesdays and Fridays after registering for pantry assistance. Hours are expected to expand as need grows, said Jacqueline Todd, Georgia Gwinnett’s director of public relations. The pantry is a partnership with the Lawrenceville Co-Op Food Bank Ministry.

The University of North Georgia’s Blue Ridge Campus also added a student pantry last September.

The campus serves 230 commuter students mostly from Fannin, Gilmer and Union counties, as well as about 60 dual-enrolled students.

At the outset of the pandemic, the college began a makeshift pantry, supplemented by donations from campus staff.

“We, in the middle of COVID, turned our conference room into a mini food pantry,” said Sandy Ott, campus director. “While the numbers may have been small, it made a difference.”

The new pantry offers more and different products than the previous iteration through a partnership with Feed Fannin and is available to students, faculty and staff during school hours or by appointment. All the goods are non-perishable for now.

Back at Kennesaw State, Olsen admits to difficulties in managing the pantry with limited full-time staff and called the addition of refrigerated goods a “big undertaking.” For now, the new refrigerator will remain empty.

“We have to be ready to pivot at any point,” said Olsen. “I think for us, it will also be about maintaining the supplies.

“We’ve had a lot of students that we’ve served this summer,” Olsen said. “We’re gonna have more in the fall.”

RESOURCES

If you need food or want to help others, here are some sites and programs to turn to:

· Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Find student eligibility information on the USDA webpage at fns.usda.gov/snap/students.

· KSU’s Amazon Wish List: Visit the virtual space for donations (amazon.com/registries/custom/13Z1Z5N67DC9O/guest-view) to purchase pantry items.

· Grizzlies Helping Grizzlies: Help support Georgia Gwinnett College students in emergency financial need by donating at ggcfoundation.org/giving and selecting “Student Emergency Fund” as the designation. Other colleges have similar programs as well.

· FindHelp.org: For basic needs insecurity, browse this online guide on free or reduced programs available in your ZIP code.

MEET OUR PARTNER

Working closely with the American Press Institute, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embarking on an experiment to identify, nurture and expand a network of news partnerships across metro Atlanta and the state.

Today’s story comes from our newest partner, the Covering Poverty project, which is part of the Journalism Writing Lab, an initiative of the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership at the University of Georgia.

This story and others will become part of an online toolkit, coveringpoverty.uga.edu, which is devoted to helping journalists across the country cover meaningful stories about people and poverty-related matters.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Managing Editor Mark A. Waligore via email at mark.waligore@ajc.com.