By Michael Schroth
A staggering number of college students—one in three—are going hungry or are in danger of going hungry. Student-led initiatives like Worcester State’s new food pantry are trying to combat this rampant, but often hidden food insecurity.
Thea’s Pantry, named for Thea Aschkenase, a Holocaust survivor, WSU alumna, and “life-long advocate against hunger,” just opened this semester. It is located in room 345 in the Student Center and is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
How it Works
Needing nutritional assistance can be embarrassing. That’s why Thea’s Pantry respects people’s privacy as much as possible.
Serena Jaskolka, WSU student and food pantry employee, is reassuring regarding the issue of privacy. “We only get your OneCard,” she says. After that, as long an individual fits the criteria, he or she gets to essentially “shop” for whatever food they want, taking up to 35 pounds per week. Families are permitted to take up to 50 pounds.
Joanne Jaber Gauvin, staff assistant for the Urban Action Institute, explains that weighing the food is purely for data purposes. They have to report this information back to the Worcester County Food Bank, the group responsible for contributing most of the food.
Dr. Adam Saltsman, Director of the Urban Action Institute, is adamant that no one should feel like their privacy is being violated when they access Thea’s Pantry.
“There is no identifying information that we share,” he says. “[Your] identity is confidential.” He adds, “Anyone with a OneCard won’t be turned away. That’s students, staff, and faculty. Alumni, too.”
Opening the Doors
The creation of Thea’s Pantry was the result of a long process that began in the spring of 2017. A group of students came to the Urban Action Institute looking to make a difference in the lives of food insecure individuals on campus. They were asked to conduct research and collect data.
This process doesn’t happen overnight, though.
“The first three students have graduated,” explains Saltsman. “Now we’re trying to keep the momentum up.”
And they seem to be doing just that. All of the research culminated in a report that the students, in conjunction with Saltsman, have drafted. The strong initial push for the creation of a food pantry was not in vain. Others are taking up the mantel.
“Over the years, new generations of students have pushed for the pantry to open,” Saltsman says.
One need only take a look at all the new faces participating in the Hunger Outreach Team Practicum that Saltsman leads every Tuesday afternoon (in Sullivan 119 at 11:30) to validate this. Students here are actively engaged and encouraged to come up with creative ideas for solving hunger-related issues on campus.
Jaskolka is one such face. Saltsman calls her a “passionate advocate” for change. She’s involved in reaching out to different offices on campus and is also conducting an independent study project.
“I’m the person waiting for people to come to the pantry,” she says. “I try to make them feel comfortable.”
Since the pantry is so new, print materials like handouts of campus resources currently lack any information about it, Jaskolka explains. She hopes to see campus tour leaders become more knowledgeable about Thea’s Pantry so that they can talk about it during tours. The Financial Aid Office, too, should be aware of this resource so they can better help students, Jaskolka says.
Jaber Gauvin thinks that Thea’s Pantry has to become a normal part of the culture at Worcester State. When people hear that students have food insecurity, she says, the first impulse should be to help them by referring them to the pantry.
With Thea’s Pantry now up and running, perhaps this will soon be the case.
Jaber Gauvin’s leadership has been critical during this whole process.
“I’m responsible for making sure we have policies and procedures in place,” she says. To put it simply, Jaber Gauvin got the pantry up and running. She hires the staff, coordinates volunteer efforts, and works out the day-to-day logistics. For instance, someone needs to act on behalf of Thea’s Pantry when coordinating with the Worcester County Food Bank. That person is Jaber Gauvin.
Not all food donations originate from the Worcester County Food Bank, however. Jaskolka says that sometimes bags of food just appear in the pantry when she goes into work.
Students on campus might have noticed the collection bins in the residence halls and in the Student Center. The boxes read “Help Can the Hunger.” This food drive is actually not being led by coordinators for Thea’s Pantry. It’s not being run by the Hunger Outreach Team, either. Instead, WSU’s Occupational Therapy program is running it.
This is a perfect example of how different groups across campus are contributing toward the success of Thea’s Pantry and toward the amelioration of hunger-related issues.
“It takes a collaboration to make this happen,” Saltsman says. “From counseling to athletics.” He goes on to explain how Julie Kazarian, the dean of students, has been instrumental in helping their efforts. Enactus and student government positions have both been helping the pantry as well.
Events like the Empty Bowls Fundraiser, which most recently took place on November 15, 2018, help raise money for Thea’s Pantry. Students and faculty are invited to “buy a bowl of soup, feed our community.” Half of the proceeds from the event went to the “new efforts for the food pantry on campus,” Jaber Gauvin explained, and the rest went to places like Chandler Magnet Elementary.
The Hunger Outreach Team has done a lot of advocacy on campus and off. Jaber Gauvin describes students reaching out to the Worcester community. In the past, they have gone to the Worcester Refugee Assistance Program, or WRAP for short, to help Burmese refugees apply to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Students have also gone to Regional Environmental Council Mobile Market stops to do the same.
Events like Worcester State’s Sustainability Fair and its Global Action Fair (recently taking place on March 19 in the Student Center) are attended by the HOT. They often have tables at the Worcester Public Library, as well.
Recently, the Food Pantry team for the WSU March Madness event won their bracket, quite an accomplishment considering just how many teams participated. More importantly, the whole event raised over $8,000 for the food pantry!
Hunger and Education Don’t Mix
The statistics on food insecurity among college students has been confirmed many times over. A 2017 study of “a large mid-Atlantic publicly funded university” published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that 15% of those surveyed were food insecure. Another 16% were at risk. More locally, a study of Massachusetts public higher education, which was released in the spring of 2018, found that 33% of state university students were struggling to feed themselves.
Even more close to home, Jaber Gauvin reports that a WSU graduate student recently researched the problem of hunger among students and found evidence that corroborated this one-in-three statistic.
This is concerning for obvious reasons, but there are some ramifications that are less obvious.
“Food insecurity among college students is an important public health concern that might have implications for academic performance, retention, and graduation rates,” concludes the same 2017 study of a mid-Atlantic university. Further findings determined that, “Food secure students were less likely to report depression symptoms than at-risk or food insecure students.”
So when college students struggle to feed themselves, their academics and mental health pay the price.
New Program Ideas
Thea’s Pantry is a great start to addressing the issue of hunger locally, but more can be done.
It’s important to note that Thea’s Pantry was the result of student concern, effort and initiative—not school leadership. However, WSU does have an emergency fund program for exceptionally needy students. Furthermore, the Telegram & Gazette reports that most public universities received “negligible increases in their state funding” for 2019. So the blame is not on WSU.
One program that has been working successfully across the nation is called Swipe Out Hunger. It works by allowing students to donate their extra meal swipes to other students. In this system, a student in need could access the donated swipes and or funds to access a dining hall.
While this program has not currently been adopted by WSU, Saltsman acknowledged this might change.
“There are a lot of students interested in being able to donate meal swipes so that students can have a meal at the dining hall,” was all he offered.
Jaber Gauvin adds that both Framingham State and UMass Lowell have both implemented this type of program, as has Roger Williams University.
“If I’m sending my kids to college, I want more than a food pantry,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, Temple University professor of higher education policy and sociology, told NPR. “I want to know that they’re addressing high food prices on campus and taking steps to ensure no student goes hungry.”