As University of Pittsburgh junior Brooke McEvoy walks through the Pitt Pantry, she points out some of its selection: cereal, soup, fresh produce. The pantry is located in the basement of the Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland and McEvoy is the president of its student executive board.
A 2016 report from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness found that 48 percent of college students had experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days. The United States Department of Agriculture defines that as limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
Many people don’t think of this as a problem that affects college students, said McEvoy, in part because diets based on ramen and macaroni and cheese are considered the norm.
“There’s a certain discourse where college students are supposed to be eating foods that aren’t necessarily nutritious, that’s just part of the college experience," said McEvoy.
Erika Ninos is the sustainability coordinator at Pitt Serves, the university-wide initiative that the pantry falls under. She said he pantry was formed in 2015 after a group of students approached the university with a message.
"They said, 'We realize that we may have been able to purchase, you know, three packs of ramen a day, but we don’t feel like that was a nutritious way of going through our college experience,'" said Ninos.
Today, Pitt students whose income is less than 150 percent of the poverty line are eligible to shop at the pantry, and more than 300 students have taken advantage of the service in the last year.
According to Ninos, many consistent shoppers are international students, whose student visa status does not allow them to have jobs to support themselves.
But there are also students who come in only occasionally, when they’re in a tight spot. For example, Ninos said she has seen many who are still adjusting to the costs associated with moving off campus.
“You may have just gotten your first gas bill, that’s $280, that you hadn’t planned for," said Ninos.
Holly Giovengo is a shopper who once worked at the Pantry through an Americorps placement. She’s now a graduate student at Pitt.
“I use the pantry to save money for other things ... like my books," said Giovengo.
When the shoppers come in, McEvoy said student volunteers called "guides" walk with them through the pantry to pick out their food.
“We really want the shoppers to be comfortable when they come in. We’ve found that peer-to-peer communication really makes the pantry what it is," said McEvoy.
The pantry also has a special group of volunteers called food recovery specialists. They are trained by the non-profit organization 412 Food Rescue to "recover" food —mostly baked goods —from local businesses that otherwise would have thrown them out, even if the items were still fit for consumption.
The pantry also gets some of its inventory through a partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, but most of it is donated by students on campus.
"Eighty-three percent of our food comes from food drives, which is awesome," McEvoy said. "Which shows the Pitt community really rallying together to support us."
The university community also gets involved in educational events that the Pantry holds.
“We have cooking classes where we’ll have people from the nutrition school come in and do lots of things with items from the pantry. We have a lot of canned foods, so what can you do with that? You can make a bean salad out of those that’s actually really delicious," said McEvoy.
Everyone at the Pantry is proud of the work they’re doing, said Ninos, but they’re also realizing that food security is just part of a larger framework of basic needs that need to be met for students.
"So talking about housing, talking about financial literacy," said Ninos.
Moving forward, the goal is for the pantry to become a central hub on campus for information and resources on this wider range of topics.