Student-Run Food Pantry to Open at GW

The Store will provide food options for students in need.

September 19, 2016

The Store is stocked with staples and fresh produce. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The Store is stocked with staples and fresh produce. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Ruth Steinhardt

College students make choices all the time: which classes to take, which majors to choose, whether to make an early-morning lecture or snatch an extra hour of sleep.

But for some, the choices are more consequential. A significant percentage of students on college campuses nationwide suffer from food insecurity, lacking adequate resources to feed themselves either nutritiously or at all.

At the George Washington University, students in need have a new resource. “The Store,” a student-run food pantry, will officially open Oct. 1. It had its soft opening Sept. 13.

“We’re really proud to be doing this,” said Tim Miller, associate dean of students. The Center for Student Engagement, which he directs, will manage the Store jointly with GW Class Council. “Obviously we wish our students didn’t have to live with food insecurity, but we recognize that some do and we’re fortunate to be able to provide the Store as a resource.

“We want to be able to take some of the weight off of people so they can focus on their concerns as students,” he said.

Discretion and privacy were important factors for Mr. Miller and his team. Tucked into a corner of the B1 level of District House, the Store is externally unmarked. To access it, students need only fill out a form providing an email address and GWorld card number—no names or financial disclosure required.

“If students say they need it, then we trust that they need it,” Mr. Miller said.

Even its name is an effort to preserve discretion. Mr. Miller and his team point out that, if asked where they’re going or where they obtained food, a student can say “from the Store” without disclosing additional information.

The pantry will be open and unattended from 6 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 2a.m., with a brief afternoon closure for volunteer upkeep. Students will access the pantry with their GWorld cards and choose freely from available food items. Once students have chosen food, they are asked to record this on a computer to ensure accurate inventory and track popular items. GW will not track the activity of any individual user.

The Store is made possible through the philanthropic support of GW families, alumni, staff and friends and is stocked with non-perishables donated by Sodexo, GW’s previous food vendor. Going forward, food—including fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy—will be provided through a partnership with the Capital Area Food Bank, with weekly restocking trips managed by Class Council. Gifts will also allow volunteers to purchase fresh produce through GW’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative.

Lydia Johnson, CSE student coordinator and logistics manager for the Store, said nutrition and quality were priorities in the Store’s conception.

“Before I approached this project, I thought of food insecurity as people not having enough to eat. That’s part of it, but it also encompasses access to healthy food,” she said. “So nutrition is something we’re really focused on.”

In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 13 percent of households in the United States had low or very low food security.

That number may be even higher among undergraduates, especially those from low-income households.

A survey of Pell Grant recipients at public colleges and universities in Wisconsin, conducted by the Wisconsin Hope Lab from 2008 to 2014, found that 71 percent of such students had changed their food shopping or eating habits due to a lack of funds. Twenty-seven percent said they had found themselves without enough money to buy food, ate less than they felt they should or cut meals due to financial need.

Colleges nationwide are responding to increased awareness. The number of food banks on college campuses has grown from just four in 2008 to more than 300 as of this past June.

Mr. Miller said he had been discussing the issue with students for some time when an article in The Atlantic and another in the Chronicle of Higher Education crystallized his belief that GW should have a food pantry. In the spring of 2016, he and his team partnered with Class Council, a community-building student organization, to distribute a survey gauging need among the GW population.

The results of the CSE survey mirrored those of broader studies, and a graduation survey administered in May revealed additional nuances—for example, that 67 percent of first-generation college students who responded to the survey said they did not have enough to eat at least once a month.

One such student is Melissa Lawrence, a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

“I’m first-generation American and the first in my family to go to college, so the topic isn’t alien to me,” she said. “When I heard about [the Store], I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is something that I myself and my friends can benefit from.’”

Over the summer, Ms. Lawrence was part of Mr. Miller’s outreach team for the Store, gathering information from communities most likely to be affected. Her research indicated that groceries would be more beneficial than a hot plate service, and that students in need were owed respect and privacy.

“The worst thing you can do when you serve is giving somebody something you think they need, as opposed to something they actually need,” she said.

Junior Vaishali Ashtakala, who shares responsibility for the Store’s volunteer management with fellow Class Council member Justin Archangel, said she has been overwhelmed by student interest in volunteering, and they have been approached by organizations from Greek Life to a cappella groups.

“We’ve had such a diverse group of students reaching out to us, which is really uplifting. It’s very much GW giving back to GW, students wanting to support other students,” Ms. Ashtakala said. “I’m really happy to see us doing things for each other. [Class Council’s] mission statement as an organization is doing programming to strengthen the GW community, so getting to be part of something like this is really fitting.”

The Store is already making a difference. Last Wednesday morning, a visitor found an unsigned note in small, elegant handwriting on the back of a paper bag.

“I just want to thank you,” it read. “I walked in and I felt terrified. I cried at how many options there are and how much people must care to do this. Bless you all.”

“If that doesn’t make you realize that this is a good idea,” Mr. Miller said, looking at it, “I don’t know what would.”

To volunteer or sign up for Store access, please visit the CSE website.