How the Worcester Union and Others are Helping Students Through Food Insecurity
The pandemic is heightening an already concerning number of students facing food insecurity, with researchers finding a 5% bump of food insecure students at four-year universities from fall 2019 to spring 2020, putting the estimate at 38%. That’s more than triple the 10.5% rate of food insecure U.S. households in 2019.
So union food pantries at schools like California State University–Fullerton, the University of Texas–San Antonio, and the University of California–Davis are getting creative about offering food, beverages, toiletries, even pandemic supplies. The pandemic has altered how schools run these pantries, affecting how food is obtained, how it’s stored and safely distributed, and the pantries are staffed. Yet they continue to be a valuable resource for students, in whatever form they have evolved into.
At Worcester University, Thea’s Pantry opened last year to address food insecurity for students. This is one case where the pandemic has impacted the pantry’s operations because fewer students are on campus that need services. To learn more about running Thea’s Pantry during the pandemic, The Bulletin interviewed Joshua L. Katz, associate director of the Office of Community Standards at Worcester State University. Here’s what he had to say about the adaptations, changes and challenges they have faced.
Thea’s Pantry was named to honor Worcester grad, Holocaust survivor, and food insecurity activist Thea Aschkenase.
How did Thea's Pantry operate when WSU went remote?
Katz: When campus shut down and the staff and students went remote, there were approximately 25 students who were living in the residence halls for various reasons. So, Thea's Pantry was actually moved to a temporary location on the first floor of one of the residence halls in order to accommodate our resident students.
Until mid-May, Dining Services provided food to the students, but once they closed we had to do even more to supplement students. Our picks went from monthly to weekly in order to keep the pantry stocked. I coordinated a faculty and staff toiletry drive in order to stock the pantry with basic necessities for the students who couldn’t make it off campus to the store.
We had an outpouring of support by our staff and faculty and we collected more than enough soap, shampoo, feminine products, deodorant, and other items. It was a great turnout to help our students. The university also provided gloves for pantry visitors, and the pantry was cleaned multiple times a day by the great maintenance staff in the residence halls.
How have students responded to the return of Thea's Pantry? Have there been any increases or decreases in demand?
Katz: During the shutdown and the following summer, the pantry was utilized on a daily basis. Since school started back up in the fall, the numbers have decreased. We believe that is due to the number of total remote classes, we don't have as much foot traffic on campus, as well as the fact that Chartwells—our food service provider—is open and providing food.
Why has the Swipe it Forward program been temporarily suspended? Are there plans to bring it back in the future?
Katz: With our residential population at about half of its usual occupancy, purchased board plans are way down this semester. After a discussion with Chartwells, we decided we were not able to offer the program this year. My hope is to have it back in the future, but it will all depend on numbers and where we are in the pandemic.
What other changes have you made to Thea's Pantry since reopening?
Katz: We have taken all the necessary precautions when reopening back in our permanent space. We have occupancy limits, plexiglass for our staff, sanitizer spray, and hand sanitizer. We require all guests to sanitize outside prior to entering and wear gloves while taking food. Also, all touch points are wiped down multiple times per shift.
What challenges have you faced and successes have you made?
Katz: Our big challenge is our numbers are way down so far this year. With the slow traffic, that means less food is going out to the people we know need it. We have found our usual students are not on campus, which might be the reason why our numbers are lower than usual.
For successes, we have seen amazing support by staff and faculty stocking the pantry with toiletries and food. We have also secured a number of grants from the community in order to help pay for staffing, as well as acquiring supplies to help the pantry. In addition, we now have a refrigerator so we can stock perishable and frozen items; we are excited to see how our guests respond to that.
What advice would you give other university food pantries during this time?
Katz: Have a plan and stick to it. Publicize the plan so the entire campus community and anyone who would be visiting can see it, and don't shy away from signage outside. Also, prepare for the numbers to go down, especially if your campus is mostly remote.