Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015
Note: This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 VCU Alumni magazine. Active, dues-paying members of VCU Alumni receive a subscription to the magazine as a benefit of membership. To read the whole magazine online, join today! For more information, visit vcualumni.org.
Kyle Aspegren was never a big fan of ramen noodles, but there she was, stocking up on the sodium-infused bricks because of their affordability.
It was better than going hungry, which she had done on occasion since entering Virginia Commonwealth University as a transfer student two years ago.
It was hard to concentrate on my studies. When you are hungry, that’s all you think about.
“Tuition is expensive, and I lost my financial aid for a while, so things were pretty tight,” she says. “It was hard to concentrate on my studies. When you are hungry, that’s all you think about.”
Now a senior, Aspegren no longer stresses about her next meal, and she eats less ramen. Thanks to the RamPantry, she can once again concentrate on her classes.
Started in January 2014, the pantry serves about 100 students each week.
“This makes so much sense, especially today because of the economy and rising tuition rates,” says Terrence Walker, administrative assistant for University Counseling Services, who helped organize the pantry as a student organization and continues to serve as a faculty adviser. “For a long time, I think people have assumed there isn’t a need for something like this, but when you really think about it, of course there is a need.”
That need became obvious a few years ago, Walker says, when more and more students who were seeking counseling services admitted they sometimes went without food because they could not afford it. A universitywide survey followed, revealing that 57 percent of students who took the survey sometimes went hungry.
“We can’t have that many hungry students,” says Beth Ward (B.S.’77/B), VCU’s volunteer services coordinator and RamPantry adviser. “Many people, like myself, are surprised there is such a need.”
Walker worked with others throughout the university to secure space in the University Student Commons on the Monroe Park Campus and equipment to establish RamPantry. About 200 student volunteers, faculty, staff and faith-based ministries work at the pantry and assist with food drives.
“I’ve always had a passion for community service,” Walker says. “I just really enjoy serving and helping others solve problems. It’s incredible to be part of something like this.”
Within months of its creation, RamPantry secured a partner in Food Lion, which to date has contributed about $20,000 worth of food, including a 2,500-pound donation in August to help stock the pantry as students returned to campus. Other local businesses are helping, including Shalom Farms, which is providing organic fruits and vegetables, Panera Bread, SoapBox Soaps, the VCU School of Dentistry and the local food bank. Relay Foods has also become a corporate supporter, providing up to 1,000 pounds of food each week.
“When we started this, I had no idea the support would be this great,” Walker says. “People have just been awesome. They see this need and have responded. It’s very heartwarming.”
Students can access the pantry 11 a.m.-5 p.m. every Wednesday and Thursday and can choose five items per week. The pantry not only supplies healthy foods but also toiletries and other basic supplies.
Most students who use the pantry are located on the Monroe Park Campus, with just 11 percent of pantry users coming from the MCV Campus last year. To make it more convenient for students who live and study on the MCV Campus, this fall the pantry started offering an online ordering and delivery service from its website, rampantry.com.
“I had no idea some of my classmates were faced with such challenges,” says Crystal Rawls, a mass communications major who interns with the pantry. “It is satisfying to help. It’s something we can all do together to wipe out hunger.”
A growing trend
Food pantries began popping up on campuses across the country after the recession hit in 2007. Today, more than 200 colleges, mostly public institutions, operate pantries. More are on the way, even as the economy improves. One of the main reasons is that, on average, tuition rates and fees have skyrocketed 1,120 percent nationwide since records began in 1978, according to Bloomberg, far outpacing inflation.
In addition, more students from lower-income families are now attending college.
“The public’s perceptions that students who are off to school have someone at home writing them checks whenever they need them are simply out of sync with reality,” Ward says.
Aspegren, for example, is working as many hours as she can to help pay the bills.
“I know my family would help if they could,” she says. “But everything is just so expensive. I work retail, but I don’t make enough to pay for tuition, books and three square meals a day. For me, RamPantry makes a huge difference.”
Some students, however, are too embarrassed to ask for help.
“I was at first,” admitted Aspegren, a psychology and marketing double major. “I felt ashamed. You always feel that people will judge you. But they didn’t judge me at all.”
The pantry is open to all students who need it. The only requirements are showing a student ID and filling out a confidential survey.
“Our biggest challenge is making sure students know we exist, so we are working on our marketing,” Walker says. “We also wrestle with the stigma attached to asking for help. I think the stigma is still there but not nearly like it was when we opened. We live in a world of social media and selfies. People are more comfortable with themselves and sharing their needs.”
We live in a world of social media and selfies. People are more comfortable with themselves and sharing their needs.
Walker can relate to today’s students and their financial woes. When he was a student at the University of Maryland, he pawned his stereo to pay for books. He would make copies of the pages he needed, sell his books and go back to the pawn shop to get his stereo back.
“I would do that over and over again,” he says. “You do whatever you need to in pursuit of a better life while working with limited resources. You do what you need to survive.”
For many students, that has meant going without a meal or eating junk food because it is relatively inexpensive. Part of the RamPantry’s mission is not only providing students with fresh food but also educating them about proper nutrition. The pantry organizes regular cooking demonstrations, and volunteers are working to create a cookbook.
“We feel like we are helping to keep students in school and healthy,” Ward says. “The entire VCU community has come together to make this a reality. And so much of the Richmond community has reached out to us to help. It brings a smile to my face.”
Ward recalls a student using the pantry for the first time and how appreciative he was to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“He was so happy that we had oranges and bananas,” she says. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know when I had a banana last.’”
For Aspegren, healthy food means better grades. “I am so thankful for the food pantry,” she says. “I can now concentrate on what I’m here for: school. I’ve told a friend about it and now he is going, too. It’s made a huge difference in my life.”
Meeting a need
RamPantry is a member of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which was established in 2012 to support both existing and emerging campus food banks. It has grown from 13 to 183 members nationwide.
That’s the big goal — to continue to grow so we can help more people.
“Unfortunately, food banks on college campuses is a growing movement,” Walker says. “It’s amazing the number of schools coming on board.”
Volunteers with the RamPantry hope it can become an accredited nonprofit organization. This would open the door for grants and more corporate sponsorships.
“The support must be ongoing,” Ward says. “That’s the big goal — to continue to grow so we can help more people.”
Education is key.
“Our hope is to link up with other schools to spread the word that this is a need in our communities,” Walker says. “We need to bring this to the attention of policymakers so we can address the need nationally.”
Closer to home, RamPantry is already making a name for itself.
VCU recognized Walker in October with the President’s Outstanding Achievement Award, and earlier in the year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe honored Walker with the Governor’s Public Service Award for Workplace Health, Wellness and Safety for his role in creating RamPantry.
“I thought it was a prank phone call when the governor’s office called and told me about it,” Walker says. “But it was real! I was so honored. But it’s not about awards. It’s about meeting a need in our community. It’s about helping others.”
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