story and photos by Pamela Hill, special to The City Wire
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on the University of Arkansas students helping to feed the local community.
FAYETTEVILLE – As the world’s largest retailer readied Bud Walton Arena on Thursday (May 31) in anticipation of Wal-Mart Shareholders’ Meeting, the less fortunate gathered just a few blocks away at the backside of Bud Walton Hall, a student dormitory, where the Full Circle Food Pantry opened 15 months ago.
“This is my first time to do this,” the woman said, her voice low as she approached the fold-out table that serves as the check-in area for the pantry. A young volunteer quickly showed her an application and explained what she needed to do. In less than 15 minutes, the woman’s application for food help had been filled out and processed, and she was out the door with three days’ worth of food for her and her family.
The Full Circle Food Pantry provides emergency food assistance to University of Arkansas students, faculty and staff who need help getting enough food for their family. It is open from 10 a.m. to noon on Mondays and 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. on Thursdays this summer. Hours will increase when the fall semester begins.
The woman who used the pantry for the first time Thursday is a university employee. She wants to work more but has only been able to find a part-time position at the UA. She works in food service but “I will do whatever they want me to do – cook, clean, whatever,” she said. It’s hard on her salary to pay the bills and buy enough food for the three grandchildren who live with her, she said.
The woman learned of the pantry from a friend and fellow university employee who also has sought help from the pantry.
Angela Oxford, director of the Volunteer Action Center, said the UA pays “significantly less than peer institutions.” Four hundred staff members live below poverty level, she said.
It’s not always so easy to make a clear distinction about students who could be at risk for food insecurity. Most people don’t picture a college student when they envision the face of a hungry American. And while many adults and former college students remember lean college years fortified by ramen noodles or Spaghettios, it gets tougher than that for some.
“It’s really hidden, but there are a reasonable number of young people here (at the UA) with no support system, no way to get food,” said Dr. Curt R. Rom, a UA horticulture professor and director of the Bumper College Honors Program. “They just don’t eat.”
A group of about 30 students involved with the Volunteer Action Center, a program of the UA’s Center for Community Engagement, started the pantry in February 2011.
Oxford said the students heard about other campus pantries around the country and started reading articles about hunger and students.
“We learned that the use of student pantries (around the country) was up significantly,” Oxford said. “We also gathered stories from staff and faculty regarding students who they knew who were in crisis. We heard about homeless students, students couch surfing, students who were making decisions between rent and books or rent and food. I think it’s always been needed, but the recession and cuts in Pell grants, etc., has highlighted (need for) the program.”
Rom said he’s personally known UA students who’ve been hungry.
He described one student who came in looking and smelling terrible. She told Rom she’d been living with a boyfriend but he’d kicked her out. She’d been living in her pickup for three weeks and hadn’t eaten in five days when she finally came to Rom. She had a scholarship that paid her tuition and any extra funding had been used for vehicle payments.
Another student, he said, had a scholarship for tuition and worked 20 hours a week. When his job was cut, he got behind on rent, and ended up living in his car with no place to care for himself and no way to pay for food.
Many students have funding of some sort for tuition, but there’s not always enough left over for food – not even that package of ramen noodles, Rom said.
“We don’t have statistics of who is food insecure (on campus),” Rom said. But if the average UA student population holds true to similar populations across the United States, that would put 15 to 20% of the UA population as food-insecure, Rom said. “It’s a real issue,” he added.
Students involved in the project received some welcomed recognition this spring. Full Circle was one on five finalists for the White House Campus Champions of Change Challenge award. The students, led by then-student pantry president Julia Lyon, who graduated in May, got to go to the White House for the award announcement. The national competition recognized student innovation and action through projects that were making a positive change in their campus community.
The pantry is supported by donations. The university allocated space in the back of Walton Hall. In May 2011, the Walmart Foundation donated $36,956 to the pantry. The donation was used to buy food and supplies to keep the pantry stocked and pays for an intern to assist with running the pantry. The donation was also used to complete projects in the food pantry space, such as the installation of an alarm system and a reception area.
Former students are supporting the effort, too. The Student Alumni Association donated last fall $5,000 it raised during Homecoming.
But current students and staff seem to be the lifeblood of the pantry.
Last fall, the pantry purchased an industrial-size freezer/refrigerator unit – thanks to a donation from the Associated Student Government after student senate members Mike Norton and Zoe Teague wrote legislation describing the need for cold-storage units at the pantry.
“The freezer and refrigerator allow us the opportunity to serve bread, milk, juice, meats and an assortment of frozen items. We’ve had people drop by with fresh eggs from their chicken houses and vegetables from their gardens which we could not accept if we did not have the refrigerator and freezer,” Oxford said.
Students will also help stock the pantry this summer with fresh produce. A student-led group called GroGreen and other students who planted a campus garden this spring plan to donate 50% of its harvest to the pantry. Another organization called CareCropping, which involves some UA students as well as other Fayetteville residents, gathers unsold and donated produce from the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market. Organizers plan to donate a portion of their collection to the pantry. Other local pantries and shelters are also beneficiaries of CareCropping’s efforts.
Amanda Chokbengboun of Fort Smith is the current pantry intern. She just graduated with a degree in physical therapy, but is back in school to earn another degree in hospitality. She’s responsible for coordinating volunteers and donations, as well as processing client paperwork.
Volunteers “shop” the pantry shelves for clients, filling recyclable bags with an assortment of foods to meet the individual’s or family’s needs for three days. The pantry is stocked with soups, broths, vegetables, beans, bags of rice, boxes of cereal and macaroni and cheese, breakfast bars and even powdered milk. Donated foods are simple to prepare since many clients have limited means of cooking.
Chokbengboun said volunteers are discreet and don’t delve into why the clients need help.
“There are people I see often. I recognize them,” she said, but she doesn’t get too personal with them, other than to ask if they’re okay or if they need some other help.
Chokbengboun said many students have helped with the pantry. Some bring donations, others want to volunteer.
“The majority of food donations have been made by students and staff. We have a wait list of students who want to volunteer in the pantry,” Oxford said. The pantry currently is able to use 25 students each semester for two hours per week.
“We get emails every day from people wanting to volunteer,” Chokbengboun said. She said some student organizations encourage members to volunteer in the community and some students want to volunteer to gain experience to put on their resumes. For those keeping count, the Volunteer Action Center makes it easy with a volunteers’ website that tracks volunteer hours.
But some people volunteer for other reasons.
“It sounded like a good cause and I got involved,” said Evan Branscum, a senior Kinesiology major from Marshall. “It’s a really good experience to give back to people who don’t have much or are struggling. It was a real eye opener to see how grateful people are. It makes me appreciate this place more.”
Branscum said, in his experience at the center, it seems about 20% of the clients are students and about 80% are staff. Most of the students he’s seen are married and/or have children. “They have people they’re responsible for,” Branscum said.
Oxford said the main objective right now is to sustain the pantry. “We hope to have an endowment to keep the pantry funded for the future,” she said.
On a recent Thursday, about 25 people came in during the pantry’s two open hours. “There was a rush this morning. A lot of people were waiting,” Chokbengboun said.
Oxford said 2,500 students, staff and their families had been served during the pantry’s first full year.