How to Start a Food Pantry on Campus

By Staff Writers

Published on July 26, 2021

How to Start a Food Pantry on Campus

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Plan & Maintain a Food Bank to Combat Hunger

It can be unsettling to think that the person facing food insecurity 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.

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.
Is there really a need for food pantries on college campuses? Not only is there a strong need for food pantries on campus, that need is growing at an alarming rate. A Students Against Hunger surveyfound 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 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.
Why is it important for schools to offer campus-based food pantries? 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. 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.
What’s the difference between a food bank and food pantry? 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.
Just how common are campus food pantries? 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.
Evaluate the School’s Need for a Pantry. 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.
Partner with Community Food Banks or Pantries. 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: Ample Harvest: Find a Pantry Feeding America: Find Your Local Food Bank FoodPantries.org
Get Sponsored. 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.
Work with the School’s Student Government. 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.
Gain Support from a College Office or Department. 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.

Choose a location.

The location of a food pantry depends upon many factors. It has to be on campus. It might be as small as a closet and hold only non-perishable foods, or it might be as large as a classroom, or even a small stand-alone building, depending upon what available space the college has to offer. It should be neat, clean and able to store food. If there will be perishables available, it’s a good idea to place the pantry in close proximity to the dining hall or similar area where sinks, refrigerators and freezers are available.

Set hours of operation.

Just like the location, much of this depends on what the school wants to make available. Some pantries are open once a week, while others open up for a few hours each day. Some stay open after many classes have finished, so students don’t have to worry about rushing to get to the pantry between classes. Hours of operation will also depend upon how many volunteers are willing to help, as well as how you choose to provide assistance.

Figure out the necessities.

Almost all food pantries will need the following areas to make the experience more comfortable for everyone:

Find volunteers.

Look to student organizations, talk to fraternities and sororities, put up flyers asking for help, and speak to service organizations about the amazing opportunities available at the food pantry. Offer patrons of the food pantry an opportunity to volunteer there as well – they might jump at the chance to help others in the same position they’re in.

Get the word out.

Spread the word about the pantry coming to the school. Do this through many of the ways mentioned above: put out flyers, posters, handouts and more. Make sure college professors, administrators and staff have plenty of information, so they can reach out to those who might need pantry services or want to volunteer.

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.

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.

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.

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