Food Pantry Future:

How Students Have Mobilized to Address Food Access Concerns for the Tufts Community

When Tufts students received the email announcing that classes would be online for the remainder of the semester, the community was thrown into a sea of unknowns. For some students, the announcement brought difficult questions like “Where will I live?” or “How will I get my next meal?” While the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the severity and urgency of these uncertainties, a portion of the Tufts campus is certainly not experiencing them for the first time. One long-standing uncertainty is a consistent and reliable access to food, or food security. While this is certainly an unprecedented time, these uncertainties, such as food insecurity, have affected students on campus long before the COVID-19 crisis. For the majority of students at Tufts, it is hard to imagine that food insecurity exists in higher education, let alone on our own campus. One reason for this collective misperception is that food insecurity is inherently a nebulous problem; it’s lodged in different issues including socioeconomic status, housing, and job insecurity, among others. The rapidity of Tufts’s deadline to leave campus not only left students and staff feeling frenzied but also quickly revealed how these issues might now be exacerbated, along with how pressing food insecurity is to our community. This prompted a coalition of actors to respond by creating the Tufts Community Food Pantry (TCP). 

The TCP is an ongoing, collaborative effort between Tufts Food Rescue Collaborative (TFRC) and Tufts Mutual Aid (TMA), with support from the Tufts identity-based centers, Dining Services, the Graduate Student Council, and the Office of Sustainability. The project began as an effort to provide food and personal care supplies for students, particularly low-income students impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Madeleine Clarke, one of the leading TFRC coordinators, noted that the pantry “is serving as a powerful reminder of the vital role that collaboration and dedication—as well as love and community—play in this sort of immediate, relief work.”

The TCP Story

The community pantry effort was borne out of the realization that students evacuating the undergraduate campus and the Medford/Somerville area would likely have groceries and pantry goods that would potentially be wasted. Instead of throwing out food in the chaos of move-out, these essential goods could be used to support community members in the form of donations to a food pantry. 

From the Office of Sustainability move-out stations alone, 936 pounds of non-perishable food were collected, not including other donations. TFRC and partners’ priority in this situation is to support the Tufts University students whose food security status is impacted by this crisis. The pantry is currently being used by undergraduate and graduate students, as well as staff members. 

This effort would not have been possible without the commitment of TFRC collaborators in supporting students through this unprecedented time. It has been incredible to see how quickly and passionately TFRC and our partners have mobilized to help create the community food pantry. Members of TMA and TFRC connected to link the multiple student support efforts happening in light of the COVID-19 crisis. 

TFRC is a two-pronged student-led organization that coordinates food rescues from dining halls through the “Family Meals” program, and rescues groceries from local grocery stores for community partner-organizations through the Leonard Carmichael Society “Van Rescue” branch. The TFRC coordinators—Morgan Berman, Kareal Amenumey, Yas Salon, Alexandra Wolf, Leslie Spencer and Madeleine Clarke—work intimately with issues of food insecurity in the surrounding community and were concerned about the impacts of campus shutdown on food insecurity among undergraduate students at Tufts.

It is important to recognize and appropriately credit the student interns at the Asian American Center (AAC) who spearheaded their own pantry in the center before the Community Pantry was fully operational. Shortly after Tufts University announced campus closure, TFRC coordinators connected with the AAC and other identity-based centers to create additional food and supply drop-off donation locations at the Women’s Center and FIRST Resource Center. FIRST provides support for low-income, first-generation, and undocumented students at Tufts. 

Later, when it was announced that the identity-based centers would close, student leaders coordinated with various campus staff and faculty members to establish a central, accessible location on campus where students could continue to access pantry goods and refrigerated foods. 

Joe Golia,  Director of the Office of Campus Life, worked with student leaders to set up what is now the Tufts Community Food Pantry in the Mayer Campus Center Room 012. The TCP is open Monday–Friday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Student leaders involved in this project have partnered with the Tufts Graduate School Council to keep the pantry stocked and are also accepting donations from Tufts community members. 

Defining and Addressing Food Insecurity

College food insecurity has become a popular news topic, with articles in publications like the Washington Post and New York Times. These articles have made their way into everyday conversations, prompting creative approaches to mitigating the issue of campus food insecurity. College campuses across the country such as Iowa State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Oberlin College have implemented permanent food pantries, often run through their FIRST-equivalent centers, for students to “buy” food for free. It is possible that FIRST-equivalent centers have spearheaded this work because these organizations tend to be closer to the issues at hand, and more in touch with the students who are most likely to experience food insecurity.

 In fact, there are a number of well-established guides on the Internet which walk students through how to start a food pantry or food bank on their campus. Most college food rescues source their food through partnering with food rescue programs and gleaning leftover items from dining halls, grocery stores, and restaurants in the community. 

Acknowledging that food insecurity encompasses an array of issues, we are operating with the definition that food insecurity is one’s lack of consistent access to a variety of nutritious and desirable food. While the Tufts administration might claim to celebrate diversity by admitting low-income and marginalized students—sometimes even providing full meal plans and housing for students—the university is not exempt from the interacting and unjust systems that perpetuate food insecurity. 

Students do face food insecurity here for a number of reasons: though food insecurity is understood to be rooted in poverty, there are many other barriers including lacking a kitchen, time to cook, knowledge of cooking, or money to buy groceries that limit one’s consistent access to nutritious, affordable food.

Efforts to ameliorate the problem of food insecurity have been made by student organizations, identity-based centers and by Dining Services programs. For example, Dining Services, TCU Senate, and the FIRST Center collaborated to establish Swipe It Forward, “to provide a platform for students to donate their meal swipes to other students in order to alleviate ongoing food insecurity on campus” (Tufts Student Life).

 These efforts have alleviated some of the burden of food insecurity but are ultimately imperfect and impermanent. Greater institutional support from Tufts could prevent food insecurity and eliminate altogether the need for programs like Swipe It Forward. 

The term “Food bank,” refers to a warehouse where food is inventoried and then distributed to local soup kitchens and food pantries; whereas food pantries are smaller grocery centers that distribute food directly to those in need. 

While these food pantries provide great utility to students who rely on them to feed themselves, they are “band-aid” solutions that do not address the core issue of students’ food insecurity. In their conception, food banks and pantries are intended to be short-term measures used in times of emergency, while longer-term solutions are being devised. 

Unfortunately, these pantries have taken on undue responsibility as they are often considered to be an acceptable and complete response to hunger and food insecurity. In a systematic review of the role of food banks in addressing food insecurity, Australian public health experts found that while “food banks play a major role in the food aid sector…they are limited in their capacity to improve overall food security.” Although food pantries temporarily and critically alleviate hunger for those who are able to access services, they do not address the systemic injustices that cause food insecurity and ultimately allow these injustices to perpetuate. 

Already, organizations such as Foodlink, in upstate New York, haved shifted from simply focusing on food to addressing poverty, “to nourish this community by nourishing the economy and the individuals in it,” according to Julia Tedesco, executive director of Foodlink. This shift should be mirrored in systemic, nationwide efforts.

The Future of the TCP and Food Insecurity at Tufts

The TCP, then, is currently a perfect example of what a food pantry should be: it was established to address the immediate needs of students experiencing unexpected or exacerbated food insecurity. However, to conclude that a permanent food pantry is the answer to campus food insecurity ignores the variety of additional structural approaches that need to be taken by the Tufts administration in the effort to more substantively address the issue. 

If only provided with a reactive measure, rather than protective, food insecurity will continue to exist, even with a campus food pantry. Additionally, sustaining campus food pantries over long periods of time yields particular challenges. These challenges include: identifying what products students need most; maintaining a relationship with a food bank to source food; relying on the donations of community partners to stock the food pantry, which is unsustainable; obtaining and renewing a food vendor license and adhering to state vendor guidelines; and determining campus logistics regarding funding, space, and volunteer recruitment. Students and staff should not have to rely on the aid of other students, staff, and community members, such as in the case of the food pantry, rather than institutional support from Tufts.

There is also a critical social and emotional component to accessing a food pantry on campus. These spaces are often stigmatized, and efforts to destigmatize the use of the pantry as well as to ensure the privacy of students accessing it would be a necessary and significant undertaking, particularly on a campus where students are in constant close proximity.

There are a number of other approaches schools have adopted to address students’ needs more holistically. Many schools hold regular communal meals through affiliation centers which encourage students to come together for free meals. While this strategy is beneficial for bolstering a sense of community through family-style meals, the irregularity of these meals makes it an unreliable option for students facing daily food insecurity. 

Cornell, among other schools, has a low-cost, student-run grocery store available to all students, with subsidized discounts available for eligible students. This system provides employment to students who manage the store and removes some of the stigma surrounding obtaining free food from a pantry. 

Some solutions have been explored in theory, but not implemented on a large scale for cost and bureaucratic reasons. For example, colleges could keep dining halls open over all school breaks to allow students with meal plans to continue to access food. Tufts Dining has continued to provide for students during this time of crisis; perhaps this can serve as a model for operating on a reduced scale for students who remain on campus during breaks. 

In collaboration with others, experts from Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy organization, have researched a large-scale proposal to extend SNAP to cover students so that those eligible could purchase food from local establishments that accept SNAP. As it stands, it is very difficult to qualify for government-subsidized food discounts. Students facing food insecurity are stuck between a rock and a hard place: The government does not support them on the premise that schools provide for them, while schools fail to create the infrastructure needed to adequately provide for these students. 

The COVID-19 crisis has provided the perfect opportunity to address the issue of food insecurity on the Tufts campus. While this collaborative effort and the continued use of the pantry are demonstrative of the power of student-led and partner-led efforts at Tufts, it also reveals a lack of comprehensive institutional policy around food insecurity. Tufts should implement more sustainable, interdepartmental, and Tufts-specific measures to prevent food insecurity and support students who are potentially likely to experience it. Time will tell if the food pantry being used as a measure in the meantime becomes part of the permanent support system on campus, and if Tufts is able to implement a more comprehensive policy addressing food security, recognizing that a food pantry is not necessarily the most suitable solution.