A greater number of VCU students than you think struggle with food insecurity. Fortunately, Ram Pantry is there to help alleviate food insecurity within the VCU campus community.
College students already have a lot on their plate regarding stress. From finals, to worrying about finding employment after graduation, to just finding a parking spot, there is a lot going on for students without adding food insecurity to the equation. An average of 38 percent of students are food insecure countrywide, with more specific statistics varying by college and state. A global pandemic on top of it all is, to say the least, not helping.
Luckily for students of Virginia Commonwealth University, there are options like Ram Pantry. An institution within the university for years, Ram Pantry helps provide food to students at VCU who face the challenge of being food insecure. Students can qualify by going online to the pantry’s website and filling out a Google Doc application to pick up donated food. All student identities are kept private, and most of the information is used as a census to get a better idea of what students’ needs in the area are, both in a dietary sense and in terms of overall need.
“[Ram Pantry] is open to all students,” said Lisa Mathews-Ailsworth, Advisor for Off-Campus Student Services at VCU. “We do ask that they be in need, but we do not have anything that disqualifies anybody.”
Mathews-Ailsworth oversees and ensures that the pantry functions, while also advising in the VCU dean of students’ office. She noted that while the Google Doc helps give Ram Pantry a better sense of the needs of the overall student population, it is also used as a way to figure out what financial needs the students have, and what steps they can take to help. Whether it is help with budgeting, the SNAP benefits program, or connecting with the various resources on campus, ultimately the end goal is for students to no longer need the pantry.
“We can also help them connect with the various resources on campus, the biggest one of which we try to push is budgeting,” said Mathews-Ailsworth. “They can meet with you, talk with you, talk about your budget from work or financial aid, where is the money going, how can we help you to get more money, or save money. We work with [students] as a liaison, and try to figure out how we can help them to be successful personally and academically, and what kind of skills they need to reach that level of success.”
One of the biggest ways that Ram Pantry tries to help students facing varying levels of food insecurity is academically. Certainly one of the biggest stressors students face in these situations is money for food, but that leads into the long term effects that students will have due to food insecurity — not just on their health, but on their academic performance and resulting futures. Naturally, if you’re focused on where your next meal is coming from you are not going to think about too much else. This can make scholastic focus difficult, which turns into a long term set of cascading dominos.
“If you don’t have a roof over your head, or you don’t have food in your stomach, it’s very difficult to focus on your academics or social interactions with other students,” said Mathews-Ailsworth.
Ram Pantry is entirely volunteer-led. Pre-COVID, it was staffed by four work study students, and during COVID, it is entirely virtual and contactless. Two students workers work there each day, with eighteen student workers total on staff. So far this year the pantry has seen upwards of 569 visits; the numbers pre-pandemic were even higher.
When the pandemic hit, many students working in the service industry lost their jobs and understandably opted to stay home, if possible, in order to save money. Ram Pantry also took a hit amidst the uncertainty that everyone faced last March, and opted to shut down until further notice because, like the rest of the world, they were not sure what was going to happen next.
“We cleared out shelves 100 percent,” said Mathews-Ailsworth. “We took everything we had and divided it into boxes, and just gave it out to students and told them to take it. No one knows what the future holds, who knows what is going to happen financially. Period.”
The pantry reopened that September and started completely from scratch. They relied almost entirely upon the kindness of strangers, especially their donors.
“They came through with flying colors,” said Mathews-Ailsworth. “Hungry Harvest started giving us produce, Duncan United Methodist Church in Ashland gave us bread every week. The Pace Center was crucial in getting us stocked back up. Kroger came through like no other and gave us $6000.”
Times of struggle often prove that your neighbors are there for you to lean on when you need them, even when they are big names, such as grocery giant Kroger. However there is still lots of ground left to cover with other powerhouses, even the ones in your own backyard. As a VCU alumni myself with memories of Rodney the Ram vivid in my head, this writer had a big elephant in the room to tackle.
Has having an organization on campus like Ram Pantry made VCU more cognizant of their own food waste?
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it does,” said Mathews-Ailsworth. “The dining halls are not usually able to donate because of federal laws. Because of the way that insurance policies are, if they donate to an organization, they can be held accountable if someone is sick.”
Fortunately, one thing that can not be denied is that Virginia is for lovers, and cities like Richmond pride themselves on their love of community. Whether it is protecting small businesses from megalo-mart giants, or ensuring our college students are receiving the help they need, Richmond gets it done when times get tight.
If you want to get involved with Ram Pantry, the best thing you can do is donate. Information about the best way to donate food, money, organize a food drive for Ram Pantry, buy them things from their Amazon wish list, and more can all be found at the Ram Pantry’s website. But outside of doations, the biggest way you can help is a lot easier than you might think.
“We rely a lot on word of mouth,” said Mathews-Ailsworth, “Even just talking to people about the Ram Pantry is super helpful to us, because you never know who you are talking to, and who might know somebody that is food insecure, or might be struggling and didn’t know we are a resource.”
Top Photo via VCU Ram Pantry