Food insecurity and homelessness is an all too real issue growing across college campuses, and even right here at home. Many students here are struggling, but the university’s student-run food pantry, known as RamPantry, is working to combat hunger and homelessness on campus.
The cost of college tuition, food, room and board, textbooks, and supplies weighs heavily on many families. While the “poor college student” is an ongoing stereotype in society, the public is seemingly unaware of the dire need for food for some students.
Surprisingly, food insecurity and even homelessness exist. According to a study by Wisconsin HOPE Lab, up to 14 percent of college students are homeless and “about half were housing insecure, meaning they’ve missed rent payments or couch-surf from place to place.” Homelessness exists on college campuses across the nation- even Richmond’s very own, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Hunger on Campus, a study conducted in 2016 reviews food insecurity and homelessness across college campuses nationwide. According to the study, 25 percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security, compared to 20 percent at four-year schools. Overall, 22 percent of respondents qualified as hungry, meaning they experienced very low food security- which is essentially defined as someone who is food insecure, as well as experiencing hunger.
The study states that “being enrolled in a meal plan with a campus dining hall does not eliminate the threat of food insecurity. Among the respondents from four-year colleges, 43 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity.”
Published by VCU’s Development and Alumni Relations is a specific breakdown of who suffers most from food insecurity at VCU:
First-generation college students
|International students||about 6%|
|Faculty and staff||about 5%|
|Military veterans||about 1%|
|Students supporting more than just themselves||26%|
|Graduate students||about 6%|
In 2012, Terrence Walker, Master of Divinity, an administrative assistant at VCU University Counseling Services, saw a need for food among VCU students and linked a local church’s charity work to VCU. A student food pantry was formed, and the foundation for the pantry was built by a small team of students and faculty, which would later be called RamPantry.
Walker would later be recognized by Gov. Terry McAuliffe for exemplary service and dedication to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Walker was recognized with the Governor’s Public Service Award for Workplace Health, Wellness, and Safety. According to VCU News, RamPantry was created after a survey of VCU students found that 57 percent of respondents weren’t sure each day where they would get their next meal.
Once RamPantry was established, a professor stepped in as a faculty advisor and a handful of art students came together to design the logo and website for RamPantry. Various food drives were held by student organizations and as time passed, RamPantry received its first donation from Food Lion- now one of their partners. Today, RamPantry receives weekly donations from Food Lion, Panera Bread, Walmart, Shalom Farms and it served over 1,800 students in its first year of operation.
According to an article written by Mike Porter of VCU News, “Senior executives from Food Lion have been so impressed that they have asked VCU to serve as a model for universities near the company’s North Carolina headquarters.” In addition, Walker stated that,“Food Lion and CUFBA have contacted RamPantry over the last several years and have asked RamPantry advisers to provide guidance to other schools that were interested in setting up food pantries.”
Sitting in a small, narrow room tucked away in the student commons building at VCU on a Friday, Amanda Pigott, RamPantry’s current student manager sat down for an interview inside the pantry to discuss RamPantry’s top goals, day-to-day work, and the ongoing need of students in the VCU community. She described RamPantry as a “Student-run, student-organized, entirely community-funded organization food pantry for students. It’s basically by students for students.”
“It’s so hard to do well academically if you are hungry,” she added. Emergency food is ready-to-eat and non-perishable. These items can include canned foods, protein or fruit bars, peanut butter, pasta, oatmeal, dry cereal or granola. Foods such as these are important because of their long shelf-lives and because many are high in protein and are easy to prepare.
When asked if food insecurity is a prominent issue at VCU, Pigott responded by saying that there is a steadily growing user base that is using and needing RamPantry’s services.
“There are homeless students at VCU. I think that’s something that people are surprised to hear,” she said. “There are homeless students everywhere. People never know. When a student shows up to school every day, people just don’t realize they could be homeless, which is another thing that ties in with food insecurity- people just don’t know. People have an idea in their head of what a homeless person looks like…it’s so much more than that. Just because you are in college does not necessarily mean you are stable.”
According to an article by Elizabeth Harris in the New York Times, Harris states that “…When a student ends up homeless, it can be exceedingly difficult to stay in school…There are practical problems — where to do your homework, for example — and, of course, there is the emotional toll. If you are worried about finding a place to sleep, how are you ever going to focus on schoolwork?” Homelessness and food insecurity on college campuses make it extremely difficult for students to focus.
And the need for a pantry is increasing across many other campuses according to Pigott.
“When we started, there were only around a dozen food pantries on college campuses nationwide,” said Pigott. Several years later there are around 500 or more, so people didn’t realize it was such an issue until now.”
According to Terrance Walker, VCU and the Division of Student Affairs (DSA), didn’t realize that there were students who were food insecure.” Walker explained that in years prior, a student who was food insecure would receive a voucher for a meal ticket from the Division of Student Affairs to obtain meals through VCU Dining Services.
“Like many other colleges and universities, we were not aware of the amount of food insecurity at VCU because there was very little data available at that time,” said Walker. “After RamPantry opened, we were able to obtain data that proved that there was a need for an official food pantry and VCU provided the space and additional support to sustain the pantry.”
Pigott said that Fridays at the pantry are mainly used for cleaning up from the week, then taking leftover perishable items such as bread and produce to a local church to be used for the homeless where it is used immediately, rather than thrown away.
RamPantry is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 to 5 pm and when it comes to funding, the pantry is run entirely by the community. Donations made by students or faculty members, city residents, Food Lion, VCU Dentistry and more, account for more than 90 percent of food handed out according to RamPantry’s website.
The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) works with VCU’s RamPantry and other campus food banks to connect them with the appropriate resources and information. Pigott described CUFBA as being a resource where college food banks can share ideas and resources with one another. CUFBA is an organization that works to alleviate food insecurity among college students.
RamPantry reaches roughly a couple hundred students per week and most users hear about RamPantry through word-of-mouth. Pigott stated that there are at least 10 new users each week, and that RamPantry has reached well into the thousands of total students helped since opening in 2012, which she describes as a success.
“I count everyone who can come by and get food that wouldn’t have been able to otherwise as a success,” she said.
The “Hunger on Campus” study also looks into the issue of homelessness among students across college campuses.
According to the study, in the most recent data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), 58,000 college students indicated that they were homeless, but the actual number is likely much higher since FAFSA requires students to show complicated documentation of their homelessness to be classified as such.
While it is hard to determine exactly why college students become homeless, there are several possible reasons that seem to be widespread.The previously mentioned New York Times article cites fewer well-paying jobs for those without a college degree as a contributing factor. According to the study done by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, only 11 percent of the homeless students surveyed claimed to make more than 15 dollars per hour.”
Students from low-income backgrounds, foster youth, and those attending community college without financial help from their parents are also behind the growing issue.
Rising tuition costs could also be a contributing factor with the cost of in-state tuition for the 2017-18 year including room and board coming in at $23,871 and $43,903 for non-Virginia residents. In May, the VCU Board approved a 3.8 percent tuition hike for in-state students.
To help offset some of the costs, VCU’s off-campus housing service works with homeless students and can occasionally provide free beds in residence halls. Any student facing homelessness is encouraged to contact them here.
So, what can be done to help RamPantry and its cause? Donations. With the limited open hours of the pantry each week, volunteers are always welcomed, but the top need is donations. Entering into the holiday season, seasonal foods such as cranberry sauce or stuffing are welcomed. RamPantry advertises on their door a higher need for feminine hygiene products and foods such as peanut butter and tuna due to their high protein content and long shelf life.
When considering what to give, donors are asked to provide items that can be easily cooked and prepared, such as Hamburger Helper. Another good way to help RamPantry is through donation drives. Contact RamPantry regarding donations or organizing donation drives to see what specific items are currently needed.
Photos by RamPantry Facebook