Oct. 11, 2021
To help address food insecurity among students, Virginia Commonwealth University is installing five Little Ram Pantries on the Monroe Park Campus that will be stocked with free toiletries and non-perishable food items.
As part of a pilot program, the first pantries will be placed inside James L. Branch Cabell Library, the Academic Learning Commons, the Cary Street Gym, Broad & Belvidere Student Apartments, and at the Ram Pantry inside the University Student Commons. Additional pantries will be installed at other campus locations later in the school year.
“[We] hope that the presence of Little Ram Pantries around campus will help normalize emergency food assistance on campus and encourage the idea that food is a human right,” said John C. Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies. “We hope that eventually that idea of someone using any Ram Pantry resource will fade into the background of everyday life at VCU.”
Jones was inspired to launch the project after stumbling upon a public, outdoor food pantry at a Montessori school in Richmond’s Church Hill. The concept is similar to the Little Free Library book exchanges often found in neighborhoods.
“I decided to try to bring some version of these boxes to campus to try to fight food insecurity,” he said. “Student food insecurity is a much larger problem on the VCU campus than most people realize. This project seeks to help mitigate that problem.”
Jones was awarded a VCU community-engaged research Health Equity Grant to launch the project, in partnership with the Office of Community-Engaged Research, the Office of Service-Learning, VCU Life Sciences, the Ram Pantry and the Division of Student Affairs. The project is part of the Sustainable Food Access core, one of eight transdisciplinary cores within VCU’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation, or iCubed.
“[We] hope that the presence of Little Ram Pantries around campus will help normalize emergency food assistance on campus and encourage the idea that food is a human right.” John Jones, Ph.D.
The Little Ram Pantries are an extension of the Ram Pantry, which has provided food and other items to VCU students in need since 2014. By adding ways to receive emergency food assistance, the project aims to reach more students.
“Our hope is that students will start utilizing the little pantries, which in turn will allow them to feel comfortable visiting the full pantry located in the University Student Commons, Room 121,” said Lisa Mathews-Ailsworth, assistant director for student support in the Dean of Students Office who oversees the Ram Pantry. “The Ram Pantry has a robust stock, including toiletries, nonperishable food items, fresh bread and produce. It is open Monday through Thursday, 11-7 p.m., to all VCU students on a walk-in basis.”
Students in Jones’ service-learning course last spring and this fall assisted in the development of the project, and their work has been invaluable, Jones said.
Youngmi Kim, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work who studies food insecurity from an economic perspective, recently conducted three studies on food insecurity among VCU students. Funded by an internal School of Social Work grant, the forthcoming studies found that approximately 35% of VCU students experience food insecurity.
As part of the research, Kim, a member of the Sustainable Food Access core, conducted a survey and focus groups of VCU students. The focus groups in particular found a low level of awareness of the on-campus food pantry, which Kim said could be addressed with better visibility, as well as linkage with other student services to increase access and reduce stigma.
“I believe the Little Ram Pantries would play an instrumental role to promote the sense of VCU community support and the food access,” Kim said.
The pantries will be restocked regularly by the research team, and the VCU community will also be welcome to stock them with shelf-stable foods without evident damage or spoilage.
In addition to Jones, the research team also includes Kim; Maghboobah Mosavel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine; and Leland “Bert” Waters, Ph.D., associate director of the Virginia Geriatric Education Center's Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program.
Jones and the research team will monitor usage of each Little Ram Pantry with the help of a magnetic sensor system — designed by Lauren Linkous, a doctoral student in the College of Engineering, along with several undergraduate students — that will generate time-stamp data every time the pantry’s door is open. The data collection will be 100% anonymous.
The team also plans to recruit students who use the pantries to participate in anonymous online surveys, as well as focus groups, both of which will provide participants with compensation. Students interested in contributing their voices to the team’s research should visit the Little Ram Pantries website or contact Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jones, whose family was a recipient of SNAP/food stamps growing up and who was food insecure for roughly half of his undergraduate and master’s degree programs, said the Little Ram Pantries project has led him to reflect on his own experiences, as well as outdated notions surrounding college students and food.
“The narrative of ‘starving college students’ eating ramen and cheap pizza every day is fairly common across American culture and has likely existed for decades,” he said. “I think many current adults who graduated from college carry these experiences as a badge of pride; and that pride reinforces the narrative that collegiate food insecurity is, at least on some level, desirable as part of collegiate transition to adulthood. I think these attitudes are misguided at best.”
VCU has been supportive of the Little Ram Pantries, Jones said, but he added that it is important to understand that even if the program is wildly successful, it will not eliminate the problem of food insecurity among students.
“The problem of food insecurity and hunger is a problem of poverty. While immediate-term, Band-Aid focused interventions like Little Ram Pantries may help blunt the worst effects of hunger and food insecurity, only by working to address the root problem of poverty, as well as racism, can we as a society create an economy in which hunger and food insecurity are functionally nonexistent,” Jones said.
“Food insecurity on college campuses, especially urban public ones, is a reflection of food insecurity in the general population,” he said. “Obviously, VCU's ability as an institution to combat poverty is rather limited; but I hope greater awareness of this problem will shine a greater light on what VCU is capable of doing to improve food security and fight poverty both on and off campus.”
To support the Little Ram Pantries, please visit here.
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