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How to Start a Food Pantry on Campus How to Plan & Maintain a Food Bank to Combat Hunger in College

It can be unsettling to think that the person sitting next to you in the classroom is doing so on an empty stomach – not because they chose to skip breakfast or lunch, but because they simply didn’t have enough food to eat. But this is the reality for many college students, and the problem has been getting worse in recent years.

But there’s good news: There are many other students who see the problem and are determined to make a difference. If you worry that your classmates might not have enough to eat, and you want to ensure that no one has to go to sleep on an empty stomach, this guide is for you. Let’s explore how to start a food pantry on your college campus.

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Campus-Based Food Pantries FAQ

Though many communities offer food pantries, sometimes there simply isn’t enough to go around. Besides that, college students might face personal obstacles that prevent them from taking advantage of the food pantries in the area – they might be in class during the times when the pantries are open, might not have the transportation they need to get there, or could simply be ineligible due to their status as a student. Those are just a few reasons why campus-based food pantries are becoming quite popular.

What are campus-based food pantries?

Campus-based food pantries are like any other food pantries, though in most cases they’re located on college campuses, and are often limited to students only. They provide a variety of non-perishable foods, and sometimes they also provide perishables, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Some food pantries also carry other items that students might need, such as feminine hygiene products, deodorant, laundry detergent and the like.

Not only is there a strong need for food pantries on campus, that need is growing at an alarming rate. A 2016 Students Against Hunger survey found that 22 percent of students had very low food security, meaning they were often experiencing hunger. 20 percent of students at four-year universities reported being hungry, while the rate rose to 25 percent at community colleges. The problem is most prevalent among students of color, with 57 percent of Black or African American students reporting hunger. It’s also a bigger problem among first-generation college students, 56 percent of whom faced food insecurity. Given the scope of the problem, it makes sense to bring the help to the students by putting a food pantry right there on campus.

A 2018 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison backs those numbers up: it found that about 20 percent of students at four-year universities and 24 percent at community colleges had skipped meals in the previous month. The study also found that marginalized students, such as African-Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ and former foster children were more likely to suffer from food insecurity.

In some communities, students either aren’t eligible for the local food pantry or they encounter other obstacles to using the services. For instance, a food pantry that is open only during the day might be impossible for a student to visit unless they skip class to do so. Or that food pantry might be too far away for a student without transportation to get there.

Another problem is how slowly issues like this move through governmental channels. For instance, a 2016 amendment to the National School Lunch Program was proposed to help college students: Those who received financial aid would also qualify for subsidized lunches. However, the bill died in committee. To combat the slow-moving governmental process for assistance, many schools are taking matters into their own hands and creating college food pantries.

The most common definition of a food bank is a warehouse or other holding facility where food is stored while awaiting distribution to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, meal programs and the like. It’s also sometimes called a “food shelter.” A food bank is usually not open to the general public.

A food pantry is a community outreach site, where individuals can come to get the food they need. Sometimes the food pantry is stocked on a regular basis by the food bank. Other times, it consists entirely of donations from the community and local organizations. Though the names are often used interchangeably, what you will find on a college campus will almost certainly be a food pantry.

Fortunately, the number of campus food pantries is growing every year, providing much-needed food and support for those who just don’t have enough to go around the dinner table. The College and University Food Bank Alliance, which tracks food pantries on college campuses, had over 640 members as of June 2018, and that number is going up with every new semester, meaning that there will be plenty of support for those who want to start a food pantry on their own campus.

Square One: Finding Support for Your College Food Pantry

Ready to get started on creating a college food pantry? We’ll be honest: It’s not for the faint of heart. A lot of work goes into the planning, creation and maintenance of a food pantry. Here are the steps to get you started.

Form a Pantry Committee

Running a food pantry is a lot of work for one person, which is why a committee is so important. Look for at least five people who are eager to help and have the kind of skills necessary to get things done: leaders who are organized with great time-management skills and the ability to speak passionately about their cause are great options. This doesn’t have to be made up of only students; you can also get administrators, staff and community members involved. Approach them with the facts about hunger and encourage them to be part of the solution.

You can be prepared with the national and state statistics about hunger on college campuses, but to really get the heart of the issue, go to the campus itself. Create a survey or poll, set up a table, and gather as much data from students as possible. Keep these points in mind about your survey tables:

  • Set tables up in high-traffic areas, such as near dorms, on the quad, or near parking areas. Don’t set up near the cafeteria, however; students who can’t afford to eat are not likely to be hanging around the dining hall.

  • Get the student union, fraternities and sororities, and student organizations involved. They can help you by encouraging students to fill out the surveys.

  • Make your table fun with bright colors, music and plenty of handouts.

  • In keeping with the desire to feed more students, offer fresh fruit, candies or other small snacks for those who stop by.

  • Keep the survey quick and to the point. Too many questions and the survey takers will opt out halfway through or not bother starting at all.

  • Provide pens and pencils for the survey takers. Assume many of these will disappear, so have lots on hand.

  • Get the proper permission before setting up. Nobody wants to be shut down in the middle of such an important endeavor.

  • And of course, keep all survey responses anonymous.

Remember the definition of a food bank: a type of warehouse where food and other items are stored for distribution. Try to get on that distribution list. Local food pantries have gone through the process before and can provide valuable advice. To find your local food bank, try some of these resources:

In order to accept donations and be exempt from taxes, the food pantry must be run as a non-profit. This means obtaining non-profit status, which can be complex and time-consuming. As a result, most campus food pantries choose to get a fiscal sponsor. The sponsor is a group that is already classified as a non-profit and willing to allow the food pantry to operate under their umbrella. Here are some tips:

  • Start by looking for a sponsor already affiliated with the campus.

  • Tap the community. Local churches, programs like United Way, local non-profits or even generous philanthropists can all be good sponsors.

  • Sit down and talk about the particulars with the potential sponsor.

  • Set up a Memorandum of Understanding that makes clear the roles the sponsor will play in the food pantry.

  • Work with college administration – and possibly an attorney – to help ensure everything runs smoothly.

Campus support is vitally important, and that can be proven with the help of the student government. Passing a resolution that declares the food pantry is a much-needed staple of the college can go a long way toward solidifying the legitimacy of the project. Talk to student government leaders about the pantry, give them information on what’s been done so far and what needs to happen in the future, and invite them to become involved.

Working closely with college administration requires getting them involved from the start. Have discussions about the problem of college hunger and provide many examples of food pantries created by other schools. Provide a wide range of options for them to look at, from permanent pantries that are open every day to pop-up pantries that operate only once a month or so. Make introductions between administration and community members, organizations and businesses that want to sign help. When it’s time to make key decisions about the pantry – where it will be located, for instance – it’s good to have these individuals on your side.

What if college admins aren’t thrilled with the idea?

It can sometimes be tough for students to admit they’re hungry; it can be just as tough for college administration to admit that their students aren’t getting enough to eat. As a result, there could be some push-back against the idea of a campus food pantry. If this happens, it’s important to remind them of the facts: rising tuition rates, more non-traditional students, less financial aid to go around and increasing costs of living all combine to create a situation where food insecurity is not only possible, but for some, probable. Approaching the situation from an understanding, compassionate and well-informed stance can help win over those who might be resistant to the idea of a food pantry on campus.

Next Steps: Setting Up Your Campus Food Pantry

Now that the groundwork is in place, it’s time to actually set up the pantry. Let’s dive right in.

College Food Pantry Supplies & Procedures

Now it’s time to get things going. There are many moving parts – this is where a strong committee will come in very handy, as well as lots of volunteers. Here’s what you need to know.

  • Determine how food will be provided. There are two main types of pantries: those that offer pre-packaged food, such as a box or bag with enough food to sustain a person for a certain number of days, and those that offer a “shopping” experience, where students can come into the pantry and take what they need, just as they would in a grocery store. The pre-packaged model works well for pantries with very little space or those that don’t have the ability to stay open for more than a few hours each week. When using the shopping model, students can either shop under the guidance of a volunteer or they can fill out a form indicating what they would like, and the volunteers can box the items up for them.

  • Consider privacy. Even though anyone can fall on hard times, an unfortunate stigma lingers around the idea of not having enough to eat. To help students avoid that feeling of shame and inadequacy, many campus-based food pantries keep things as anonymous as possible. They might opt to set up no-questions-asked appointments for individuals, or they might open the doors on certain days on the honor policy of “take what you need and nothing more.”

  • Check out school policies. When it comes to any large endeavor like this, having strong policies in place is the key to ensuring long-term success. Speak with the school about their policies concerning risk management, data collection, budgeting, confidentiality and more.

  • Consider food safety. Providing safe food is vitally important. Keep in mind basic hygiene, such as hand washing often, no smoking in the facility and keeping food at the proper temperatures. Rotate out the stock, ensuring the oldest cans and boxes go out first. Have a good pest control plan in place and always be on the lookout for food that has been contaminated or compromised.

  • Figure out storage and packaging. Depending upon what you have on hand during the day-to-day running of the pantry, you’ll have a variety of storage needs. Boxed foods need to be kept away from walls and floors, on sturdy shelves if possible. Cold foods must be refrigerated or frozen. When packaging food for distribution, ensure it goes into clean, sturdy boxes or bags.

  • How will donations work? When someone wants to donate food or money to the pantry, it’s important to keep track of everything and ensure it all gets the right place. With food donations, this might simply mean putting it in the proper place after logging into your tracking system. But with monetary donations, things get a little trickier. Speak with college administration on how to handle this, as each school might have a different policy.

7 Tips for Operating a Successful Food Pantry

Now that the pantry is up and running, it’s important to keep it going. It will soon become a must-have option for students who want to avoid hunger. Here are some points to keep in mind about operation.

  • Work to raise funds and donations. Fundraising events are crucial to keep a food pantry running. In addition to asking for funding from organizations like the alumni association, university foundations, Greek organizations and the fiscal sponsor, consider holding food drives on the college campus, or even out in the community. It’s also possible to garner donations of services, rather than cash or food – for instance, a local printing company might be happy to print the flyers for the pantry.

  • Keep getting the word out. As new students enroll, it’s important that they know about the resources available to them. Once the pantry is up and running, much of the notice about it will come from word-of-mouth. However, you also want to pull in those who might not be in the loop. Here are some options:

    • Create large, laminated posters for common areas that explain how the food pantry works.
    • Ask the college to include food pantry flyers in resource packets for new students.
    • Have plenty of flyers at strategic places on campus: student services, the career center, student health services and more.
    • Keep updated information on the school website or school blog.
    • Post ads on local buses and campus shuttles.
    • Create short video PSAs to play on campus televisions.
    • Get in touch with the media – radio, newspaper, local magazines and more – and ask if they would like to cover the good things the pantry is doing.
  • Figure out a way to track success. It’s vitally important to track where donations come from, what the most popular items are, how many students are helped, how many hours the volunteers provide and much more. Create logs to keep track of everything and keep them up to date. One of the first steps for training any volunteer should be teaching them how to use the logs.

  • Solicit regular evaluations. Want to know how the pantry is really doing? Request that users of the pantry fill out anonymous surveys to detail their experience. Ask them to offer ideas as to what could be done better. Do the same on a regular basis with volunteers. This can help pinpoint areas where the food pantry could improve.

  • Keep administration in the loop. Now that the pantry’s performance is being measured, let administration know how things are going. Creating a quarterly report that details how many people used the food pantry, the busiest hours, how many volunteers were needed, any shortfalls in providing food or other items, how much it all cost the school, and other pertinent information should be included. Be ready to meet with the school on a regular basis to answer any questions that the report can’t.

  • Always look for fresh volunteers. Every volunteer needs a break from time to time, so make sure they can get it by having a constantly rotating list of volunteers to help out. Always be on the lookout for those who might be interested. Besides, each volunteer who gets that wonderful feeling of helping others will be more likely to talk about the pantry and pull in even more people who want to help.

  • Consider expansion if the need is too great. If the food pantry starts out as a small closet and runs through all donations within a matter of a day or two, it might be time to upgrade to a larger space and more food available. Remember that tracking report suggested earlier? That’s going to come in very handy when approaching college administration about finding a larger space.

Additional Resources for College Food Pantries

College food pantries take a lot of work – but lots of dedicated people can create a booming success. Here are a few other resources that can keep them on the right track.

  • College and University Food Bank Alliance: Getting Started?

    This is the starting point for those who want to learn more about CUFBA and start their own campus food pantry.

  • Feeding America: Research.

    Get up-to-date on hunger in the United States, especially on campus, so you’re prepared to talk to others about the problem.

  • Food/Fundraising Tool Kit.

    This presentation is a great way to get started on a major donation drive or fundraiser.

  • IRS: Tax Information for Charities and Other Non-Profits.

    This government site includes important information on taxes, sponsors and other information for those who are starting a food pantry or any other charitable organization.

  • Running a Campus Food Pantry.

    This comprehensive guide answers many questions about food pantries, and includes valuable templates for training volunteers, gathering information, logging donations and more.

  • Safe and Healthy Food Pantries Project.

    This guide offers actionable steps to ensure the food safety and good health of all patrons of the pantry.

  • So You Want to Start a Campus Food Pantry? A How-to Manual.

    This guide from Oregon Food Bank is another great read to help prepare students for the expectations, rules and more of running their own pantry.

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

    Though this might not be of much assistance when creating a food pantry, it is important information to have on hand for students who might qualify (this especially applies to students who have families that include small children).

  • Starting Your Own Food Pantry.

    This guide from Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee focuses on how to start a community pantry, but offers excellent information for those starting campus pantries as well.

  • Volunteer Handbook.

    Presented by the Food Bank of Delaware, this serves as both a great way for potential volunteers to learn more about their responsibilities and a potential blueprint for campus food pantries when creating their own manuals for volunteers.

  • You Give Goods.

    This site offers a place for individuals to begin food drives, contribute to those already in place or find other ways to help those in need.