A photo of a woman stocking food on shelves.
VCU work-study senior Teirney Judd stocks food in the new Ram Pantry space. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Marking its first decade – and reopening in new space – Ram Pantry continues serving food-insecure students at VCU

Larger storefront on West Grace Street will help target the link between hunger and academic achievement.

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Lining up beans, pasta, canned goods and healthy snacks, Virginia Commonwealth University students stock the shelves every Monday afternoon at Ram Pantry. Fresh produce gets packed into the refrigerator.

The items, all donated, are available for free to students facing food insecurity, and this year marks the 10th anniversary that Ram Pantry has targeted the link between hunger and academic achievement.

“We’ve impacted helping students graduate on time, with higher GPAs, and we’ve affected retention,” said Ram Pantry founder Terrence L. Walker, University Counseling Services administrative assistant. “Hungry students are more likely not to stay in college.”

To mark the milestone of its first decade, Ram Pantry is holding a reopening event at its new location – 930 W. Grace St. – on Monday, Nov. 6, from 3 to 5 p.m. In the large, airy storefront, two window-lined walls illuminate space in a building shared with the VCU Free Store and VCU Sustainability. It’s a notable improvement from the smaller, darker corner Ram Pantry had occupied in University Student Commons, and the new location will operate Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Research has found that food insecurity among VCU students is driven by a number of factors, including limited funds, basic needs insecurity, lack of transportation, lack of access to a kitchen and lack of time to prepare meals.

Ram Pantry serves VCU students in need right where they study.

The link to academics

VCU School of Social Work associate professor Youngmi Kim, Ph.D., estimated from a study that 33% of VCU students experience food insecurity. That’s nearly 10,000 students.

A great deal goes on behind the scenes to make the Ram Pantry function. The service is staffed by one part-time employee, one undergraduate social work intern and 17 Federal Work-Study program students.

A woman and a man speaking while holding clip boards in a food pantry room.
Taylor Thompson, former president of the Ram Pantry, takes VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., on a tour of the Ram Pantry in its early days, sharing data on the number of students who used the program during the first two semesters after it opened. (Photo credit: Terrence Walker)

Despite increased discussion around food insecurity, the issue still carries a stigma. The confidentiality of recipients is honored with staff only using their initials. Users register by completing a survey, and staff use the data to inform the VCU administration about the level of need on campus and to let donors know how impactful their support is.

"The Pantry allows students to know where their next meal is going to come from,” said Lisa Mathews-Ailsworth, Ram Pantry manager and associate director in the VCU Office of Student Advocacy. “We always have something on our shelves, which I am very grateful for. It might not be a student’s favorite item, but at least they can have food in their stomachs, so they can focus on other items. It’s very hard to focus on academics when their attention span and memory are dimensioned due to hunger.”  

She tells students that their weekly Ram Pantry visit might not cover all their grocery needs, but hopefully it can save them $20 or more each week.

By mid-October, there had been more than 160 new and more than 150 returning students to Ram Pantry this year, with nearly 800 total visits. Last year’s nearly 3,200 visits served 433 new and 150 returning students.

Partnerships and growth

Ram Pantry’s roots were planted in University Counseling Services. A decade ago, Walker heard from colleagues about their encounters with food-insecure students. He also reflected on his own experience. So he started Ram Pantry as a student organization with limited funds but significant impact providing nutritious food.

“We had a first-generation college student who worked part time. Her family was dependent on her to get an education, to support the family because they had no resources to provide to her to get her education,” Walker recalled. “She had two challenges with transportation – getting to her job as a waitress, and then getting back to campus to class – and was hungry. She didn't make enough in her wages to buy food.”

Walker established partnerships with groceries including Food Lion, restaurants including Panera and the VCU Learning Garden. Ram Pantry moved from being a student organization to an entity under the Division of Student Affairs.

Services have expanded. In 2020, Ram Pantry introduced a Surplus Program that, when there is excess perishable food, serves students, faculty and staff who don’t meet the strict definition of food-insecure. And in 2021, Little Ram Pantries were established around campus by John Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor in VCU Life Sciences, to make food more accessible for students in need. Ram Pantry also now helps students with personal budgeting to stretch their finances. In addition, Jones established a partnership with the Feed More regional food bank last year.

Mathews-Ailsworth envisions more changes, including the possibility of a dedicated vehicle to pick up donations.

A man standing next to a Rodney the Ram mascot in a room filled with food on shelves.
Terrence L. Walker, University Counseling Services administrative assistant and Ram Pantry founder, with mascot Rodney the Ram on a day that Food Lion made a big food donation to the Ram Pantry. (Photo credit: Terrence Walker)

Students making an impact

Walker saw Ram Pantry’s founding students use their graphic design, administrative, engineering, advocacy and communication skills to bring attention to the issue of food insecurity. And he says that commitment follows them as alumni into their awareness and care for the greater community.

A bright memory for Walker was when a School of Social Work graduate student intern told him she was a Ram Pantry user as an undergraduate – and it was key to her success in higher education.

That appreciation continues among current staff as well as student users. Work-study student Teirney Judd says the weekly groceries from Ram Pantry are crucial to her peace of mind and academic success.

“Ram Pantry gives me one less thing to worry about every day and one less thing I had to think about constantly,” said Judd, who is majoring in security and emergency preparedness. “It made it easier to focus because I wasn't going all day without having food. I could only afford to go and get that one meal, especially once I lost that meal plan. It helped me not have to force myself to eat food that's going to make me sick.”

She started working at Ram Pantry during freshman year after she began using its services.

“There should be no embarrassment in using Ram Pantry,” said Judd, who enjoys not only helping but connecting with other students in need. “Being able to give them the resources and make them see that impact happen in their life in a similar way that it did in mine – it makes me feel like I'm actually doing worthwhile work. It has helped with my self-worth, because when you're in poverty, you start to think that maybe it's your fault. And working here has definitely made me see that it's not because of me as a person.”

Fellow work-study student Claire Williams, an urban planning major, thinks Ram Pantry’s new location will mean more visibility – and she, too, tries to remove the stigma from food insecurity when promoting the service.

“I talk about it in general and in classes as much as I can,” she said of Ram Pantry. “I tell everyone that I use it, too, because it's a resource that I know so many people could use.”

A room with shelves and bins.
The Ram Pantry has moved into its new location at 930 W. Grace St., where it will operate Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)