A food pantry for students has opened at the University of Vermont.
The effort is a response to a 2017 study that showed one in five students at UVM lacked consistent access to enough food. Several groups have been working on solutions — on Monday, the Student Government Association launched the Rally Cat’s Cupboard in Hills Building.
The pantry is open Monday and Friday during the third week of every month and is stocked with meal items like macaroni and cheese as well as snacks like fruit snacks and energy bars.
While some resource centers have offered smaller food pantry services in the past, this is the first campus-wide option open to all. On its first day of operation, 33 students came to take food.
Jillian Scannell, a senior and the student body president, has been a leader on the project this year. She hopes to expand hours once they have a clearer picture of demand and a system to organize volunteers.
“As we need to, we’ll expand, but we figured we’ll start out small and grow them to scale back,” she said.
In an emergency, students can email the student government to gain access to the pantry in off hours.
Scannell explained that the pantry was designed to protect visitors’ privacy. To access the space, students must present their UVM ID to a volunteer, who marks down only if they are a graduate or an undergraduate student and what time they came in.
“They come in and grab a bag and then it’s fill and take as you need,” she said. “We looked at different models for food pantries and we thought this shopping experience was the best one.”
At the pantry’s ribbon cutting ceremony Monday afternoon, UVM President Suresh Garimella spoke about the importance of shining a light on the issue of food insecurity.
“I would much rather there was no need for a pantry like this but because there is a need, I’m glad we’re here,” he said. “If you’ve ever heard me say anything you’ve heard me say that I’m really, really, really interested in student success, and a student cannot succeed if they are hungry, so it’s a very important part of that.”
UVM is not the only university working to combat student hunger. Vermont Technical College has food pantries on its two residential campuses, according to spokesperson Amanda Chaulk. Community College of Vermont has partnered with Feeding Chittenden to create a satellite food pantry in Winooski, which is targeted toward its early college program, according to Natalie Searle, director of secondary education.
Northern Vermont University has food pantries at both its Johnson and Lyndon campuses, according to spokesperson Sylvia Plumb. A survey conducted in 2019 at the Johnson campus indicated that 36% of respondents had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.
The UVM student government partnered with the Food Insecurity Working Group to get the pantry up and running. The working group was founded in 2017 and has helped launch a number of initiatives to increase student access to food including Swipe Out Hunger, which offers students 14 free dining hall meals a year.
Nicole Rohrig, the co-chair of the working group and the university’s dietician, said the working group offered advice on operating a food shelf. Among the recommendations were not limiting what students could take or how often they could visit.
“Another thing we talked a lot about is location and stigma,” Rohrig said. “Finding a location that was not right in the middle of everything so people you know might be walking by, but also not so far off the beaten path that you’re never going to stop there.”
Sophomore Peter Lally said he hopes to expand the food pantry and be able to invest in a refrigerator and offer fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. There are also plans in the works to open a student thrift shop in the same space, which may happen as early as next year.
“We don’t have a definitive timeline yet, but with the number of students that came in on the opening day yesterday definitely shows that students are in need of this,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see that our work is being used.”
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.