Three people sort and track donated food items.
Students Cuong Nguyen (left, sitting) and Audrey Wilkerson (center) log in and take inventory of donated items at RamPantry while RamPantry coordinator Felicia Dixon supervises. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Five years after its founding, Ram Pantry continues to help address food insecurity

VCU’s Giving Tuesday efforts this year will raise money for the campus food pantry.

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On a recent Wednesday, student volunteers Joshua Casair and Cuong Nguyen are working at Ram Pantry, a 20-by-8-foot space on the first floor of the University Student Commons. Resembling a mini-mart, the pantry is equipped with three tall shelves along both of its long walls. Each shelf is stocked with consumable items as well as personal hygiene products and some clothes. A clear-glass two-door refrigerator sits against the far wall, stocked with vegetables on one side and bread on the other.

Casair and Nguyen greet a female student who comes in the door. The student swipes her Virginia Commonwealth University ID and takes a short survey on an iPad. She chooses a bag from a bin and fills it with ramen packages, boxes of pasta, snack bars and tea bags. Less than five minutes later, she leaves with provisions that should last a few meals. 

Ram Pantry, established in 2014, is open every Wednesday and Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Its primary purpose is to address food insecurity, defined as a lack of access to three full meals a day to ensure an active, healthy lifestyle. 

“Food insecurity is a silent crisis,” said Katherine Rowe, president of the Ram Pantry student executive board, and a junior in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “It’s extremely pervasive; 30% to 50% of college students meet the characteristics of food insecurity.”

The pantry, now in its fifth year, had 1,162 student visits during the 2018-19 academic year, including 209 guests who visited for the first time. An established and dedicated group of volunteers and staffers are the driving force sustaining this important service. Every week, approximately 30 students assist as greeters as well as behind-the-scenes publicists, food-drive organizers, shelf stockers and grant writers. Many of those volunteers come from the VCU ASPiRE living-learning service community. The VCU Learning Garden provides 200-300 pounds of produce a year to the pantry. And efforts have garnered donations from local supporters such as Kroger, Food Lion and the Birdhouse Farmers Market. Food is donated either personally, through food drives around campus, or official partnerships to create the pantry’s inventory.

To bolster the funds for food insecure students, VCU's Giving Tuesday efforts this year are focused on raising money for Ram Pantry. A global day of giving celebrated annually the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Giving Tuesday uses social media to build a community around philanthropy. Donations to Ram Pantry can be made through Dec. 3 on the university’s Igniter website.

Raising money for the pantry would allow it to offer a wider variety of goods, said Michael P. Andrews, executive director of annual giving in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. Most of the pantry’s provisions are canned and processed foods. Despite the donations from community partners, fresh fruit and vegetables — and a greater variety of non-perishable foods — are harder to come by.

“We chose to focus on the Ram Pantry because it deserves and warrants more exposure than it gets today and it flies under the radar,” Andrews said. “We’re all here for student success. Supporting the Ram Pantry is a way to show success, and show support for students with a donation.” 

A person reads a can of soup. Donated food items sit on shelves in the background.
Audrey Wilkerson reads the label on a donated can at RamPantry before placing it on the appropriate shelf. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

A significant impact 

Students who have to go without food are negatively affected in other areas of their academic lives.

“It’s impossible to study when you are hungry,” said Ram Pantry founder Terrence Walker, an administrative assistant with University Counseling Services. 

Walker discovered the need for Ram Pantry during sessions with students who explained how their financial hardships translated into not having enough to eat. He saw that food insecurity among college students mirrored what was happening in the population at large. Many first-generation college students would come in dealing with food insecurity. They were experiencing it in elementary school, middle school and high school. They may have done well academically, and were able to get into the university, but that didn't mean that they stopped being food insecure because they were accepted and admitted, Walker said. 

We chose to focus on the RamPantry because it deserves and warranted more exposure than it gets today and it flies under the radar. We’re all here for student success. Supporting the RamPantry is a way to show success, and show support for students with a donation.

Data backs the anecdotes. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, 41.8% of Virginia kindergarten through 12th-grade students received free or reduced lunch during the 2016-17 school year.

Walker learned best practices from universities around the country with food pantries. He said the service has made a significant impact.

Felicia Dixon, the Ram Pantry coordinator, has been tasked with increasing the number of students using the service and ensuring an ample food supply. 

“The issue is the need to be able to supply the needs of the students,” Dixon said. “We rely 100% on donations. … We are working on appealing to people to assist to get to a position where we can be self-supported.” 

A person pushes a grocery cart full of donated items. Cans and other donated food are stacked on a table.
Audrey Wilkerson pushes a cart with food items that have been logged in by Cuong Nguyen (sitting at the computer) to the RamPantry to stock the shelves. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Helping the community in meaningful ways

The day before the pantry opens to the public, student volunteers prepare. On a recent Tuesday morning, Gabriela Ramos, a freshman biology major, wipes down shelves and checks in donations left in bins in the hallway. In the next shift, students Sharonda Jones, Audrey Wilkerson and Ruth Laryea help Dixon sort food bought with gift cards donated by Kroger supermarkets, noting amounts in an inventory spreadsheet.

“The most meaningful part of being involved in the Ram Pantry to me has been to help the community and students,” said Wilkerson, a biology and chemistry major, who also uses the pantry. “I have access to a kitchen in my dorm and I see the Ram Pantry as an option to make college more affordable. It adds to my meal plan.” 

At home, the Richmond native is one of eight siblings in a household stretched thin. 

Ram Pantry’s efforts to address food insecurity have raised awareness about helping students in need throughout VCU. Brenda Brown, an office administrator in the College of Health Professions, initiated a food drive and distribution effort on the MCV Campus after hearing of students struggling with food insecurity. Patricia Porter-Mayfield, executive assistant to the dean of the College of Health Professions, helped expand the food drive to departments throughout the college.

“At MCV, I think the need is greater,” Porter-Mayfield said. “The students’ schedules are hectic. And there’s not a food source that is close to them.” 

Ram Pantry is working with Brown and Porter-Mayfield to provide a pop-up pantry on Nov. 19. They also hope to establish a Ram Pantry location on the MCV Campus next year to fill the gap for students.

On the Monroe Park Campus, Briana Brown, a freshman who is a pre-health major in nursing, helps out at the panty because of her desire to make a difference. 

“Growing up, my grandmother was really poor and I remember going with her for food assistance,” Brown said. “No one should have to make a decision to give something up to pay for their next meal.”

Erin Burke Brown, Ph.D., director of ASPiRE, said students helping others at the Ram Pantry is a powerful experience in empathy. 

“When students do service, sometimes they think of someone who is not like me having a hard time, someone needing help, someone who is food insecure, someone getting basic essentials and that’s someone you don’t know,” Burke Brown said. “But this is someone who sits next to you in class.”