When Oregon State University’s Emergency Food Pantry opened in March 2009 as one of the first university food pantries in the nation, its student staff and volunteers saw only about 40 visitors twice a month during open hours.
Three years later, the pantry serves more than 300 a month, even during school breaks.
With this growing demand in mind, staff have continued to build up the pantry by upping the variety of food and household items it offers, establishing an inviting atmosphere and reaching out to nonstudents.
“People think we’re just to serve OSU, but in reality we can serve anyone in the community,” said Ela Martinez-Moreno, the pantry’s outreach coordinator.
A handful of other community colleges and universities around the state have opened food pantries since OSU’s launched in the south end of Snell Hall, including Portland State University, but Oregon remains one of the hungriest states in the nation. Nearly 30 percent of children experience food insecurity — defined generally as uncertainty over where the next meal is coming from — which is the highest rate in the nation.
At OSU, about 19,000 students receive some sort of need-based aid. The university’s Human Services Resource Center, which oversees the food pantry, also assisted 3,300 students last year by arranging some combination of food subsidies, emergency housing or rental assistance, health insurance subsidies and graduate student conference subsidies.
The pantry’s three paid employees and dozen regular volunteers aim to show that the need is more serious than the “poor college student” stereotype.
“We can’t say that poverty is OK if you’re trying to get a degree,” Martinez-Moreno said. “There’s a difference between having no money and having no nutrition.”
Thus, they’ve tried to make it simple for clients to use the food pantry. When checking in during pantry days — the third Wednesday and fourth Thursday of each month — clients need only provide their name, household size, and any food allergies or foods important to them — they’re not required to provide proof of income or household size.
Clients can also claim their roommates as members of their households. They can shop together, and some can select more food if they need it.
“We’re really flexible. If someone says, ‘We really need this,’ we’ll give it to them,” said Olivia Hollenhorst, the pantry’s volunteer coordinator.
After checking in and being paired with a student volunteer to assist with the process, clients can select ingredients for five to seven meals, depending on household size. Instead of picking up a box of presorted food, clients can pick which types of grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins they want, much as they would at a grocery store. The staff says it gives clients an empowered feeling and allows less food to go to waste.
“If you don’t eat meat, we’re not going to give you meat,” Martinez-Moreno said.
The pantry gets most of its food supplies from Linn-Benton Food Share, although it also receives donations from local farms and individuals. Donors sometimes contribute supplies of blankets, toiletry items and diapers, which often are scooped up on pantry days.
Staff put in orders to Linn-Benton Food Share before each pantry day, and they have begun stocking the pantry with more varieties of beans, grains and protein as well as cultural food items, such as tofu and hominy.
The variety makes the service more helpful to more people as there’s no such thing as a typical food pantry client.
“You can’t look at one student and know what their situation is,” Hollenhorst said.
Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.