New Campus Pantry Seeks to Combat Food Insecurity

Synonymous with care packages stuffed with Ramen noodles and midnight Waffle House runs, the words “college student” often seem to jokingly imply “hunger” or “starvation.” However, for many college students, missing meals and going to bed with a growling stomach is an everyday reality.

Seeking to help students living with food insecurity, John Brown University staff members have opened Servant’s Heart Community Food Pantry.

According to an informal study conducted by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, more than two dozen institutions “were aware of some level of food insecurity among their students.” Almost half reported they “had seen an increase of food insecurity over the last five years.”

Rhonda Hostler, director of health services at John Brown University, became inspired to find a solution after witnessing students struggle with the consequences of hunger. “I just happened to be talking with a student. He came in with something that had nothing to do with it and I started asking questions. I started deducing,” Hostler said. “We have students that are working 20 to 30 hours a week. You realize that we really recommend here at JBU that you don’t work over 15 hours a week, and then they share, ‘Well, I don’t have a choice. This is the way that I eat.’”

“We had a student that had to commute an hour. Sometimes it was either that they spent money on gas or spent money on food,” Hostler said. “We had another student that was sleeping in the parking lot in their car. This is not sustainable. This student is not going to be successful. It was time [to do something],” Hostler said.

To create the food pantry, Hostler partnered with Denise Farine, administrative assistant in the Student Development office, and Julie McGarrah, computer systems and records coordinator for the Registrar office. “You just don’t think at John Brown University, a private college, that you have people that are struggling, saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to eat today.’ I never thought about it,” McGarrah said.

Located between the Student Development Office and Health Services Office, the Servant’s Heart Community Food Pantry offers students single serve meals and snacks, along with personal hygiene, such as toothbrushes, feminine products and shampoos. The current hours for the pantry are Mondays 9:00 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.

Students who are interested in receiving assistance can come by the Health Services Office or the Student Development Office to fill out a form. “People can put their orders right on the computer, and then we print that out. Our work-study students or ourselves go and pull the food and put it in the bag for the student,” Hostler said. “We want the student to check it out, just to make sure that there’s not any allergies … We also don’t want them to go, ‘I really don’t like whatever,” and then it goes to waste. We’re able to exchange it out.”

The goal of the Servant’s Heart is to serve JBU’s growing commuter population. “Historically, they’ve been a hard demographic to retain, so this is really going to help them feel connected to JBU, just like our residential students that live on campus,” McGarrah said.

Seeking to connect with commuter students in need, Farine sent out an email announcing the opening of the pantry. “I sent an email out to all 356 commuters that didn’t have a meal plan,” Farine said. “I described the pantry and invited them to fill out an information form which gave their name, how we can get in touch with them and if they were interested. I had 40 respond.”

So far, student requests for food have been increasing, especially for lunches. “Some have had really full orders, like breakfast, lunch and maybe even a dinner. We’ve had most people looking at lunch. They grab something on the way to school, maybe a granola bar, then they get a lunch here, and then a snack for the afternoon,” McGarrah said. “That seems to be the majority that we’re seeing. Everybody is looking at whatever is individualized and can be thrown in a microwave.”

Farine encourages students to seek the help that they need. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Everyone walks into the nurse’s office at one time or another. You’re going to walk in for about 30 seconds, pick up your bag and leave, and none the wiser,” Farine said. “You don’t walk out with a bag that says, ‘You just came to the pantry.’ We’re recycling our Walmart sacks. I wish more people were taking advantage of it, but I realize we’re early on.”

Because the food pantry is not funded by JBU, Servant’s Heart depends on donations from the community. “We were given a really nice gift from a really wonderful person that heard about our program, so that was our starting money,” Hostler said. “We had a couple of other people give to it, but we need help … We want to make this work for a long period of time.”

“What we’re basically looking for is if any organization is going to have an event and if they want to do a can drive, that would be great. It should be the individual meals,” Hostler said. “As far as if there’s anyone who wants to give, we have it set up for employees that they can do a payroll deduction. If they want to give a one-time gift, they can do that, which goes through the University Advancement office. For anyone that wants to give, it’s tax deductible.”

Hostler also encourages students and staff who know individuals in need to email the pantry at “We want people to be our ears and our eyes. If they see someone who is struggling or know that someone is struggling, please encourage them to come see us and we’ll see how we can help,” Hostler said. “Anybody can email. Faculty and staff can email and just say this person I really think could use it.”

“Our attitude is that there is no reason anyone should be going hungry … Students are not going to learn if they are sitting there with rumblings in their tummy, and they haven’t eaten since yesterday at 5:00. It’s 10:00 in the morning, and they plan on not eating until 5:00 that evening,” Hostler said. “We’re getting more and more commuters, and so we want to make sure they’re supported like our students that live here on campus.” 

Photo: Catherine Nolte, The Threefold Advocate