November 23, 2014


NCSU food pantry aims to feed community and create leaders

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"It’s a great opportunity to use my nonprofit studies and give back to the community," said Monique McLeary, an Institute for Nonprofits Student Ambassador.

Most students at NC State University are finalizing plans to head home or visit friends for the Thanksgiving holiday break. But before they leave, more than a dozen students are volunteering their time to staff and stock the new campus food pantry to ensure that others in the university community have food on their tables.

"About 10 months ago, we started talking broadly about students in need, focusing on food insecurity and problems related to housing," said Mike Giancola, Associate Vice Provost for Student Leadership and Engagement. "We realized pretty quickly that we have faculty and staff experiencing challenges as well.  We wanted to respond as a community."

The result was Feed the Pack food pantry, which will celebrate its opening with a food drive at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in a formerly unused classroom space at 379 Harrelson Hall. It is tentatively scheduled to start providing resources to users on Nov. 27.

The project received a welcome jumpstart when NCSU Facilities Division persuaded Rodgers Builders, one of the contractors involved with renovation and new construction of the Talley Student Center, to provide a $5,000 grant. The funds have been used to purchase shelving and create reception and processing areas.

"It's exciting to see this turn around so quickly," said Giancola, adding that the student-led project has an advisory board and intends to operate as a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit. "We have more training to be done, but we feel it's the right time to start. We wanted to seize the wave of generosity around the holidays."

While giving tends to increase with seasonal cheer, so does the stress commonly associated with the end-of-semester grind. Inadequate nutrition can take a heavy toll on students, faculty and staff.

"The government's definition of food insecurity is lack of access at all times to adequate amounts of nutritious food to enable a person to lead a healthy and active lifestyle," said Ross Fraser, communications director for Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity.

"That includes education. If you look at any data on the relationship between poverty and education, the vast majority of people who live in poverty have low levels of education," Fraser said. "The road out of poverty is a good education."

While Feeding America does not track food insecurity data specific to college campuses, it reports that the number of people it feeds overall increased by nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2010. The increase means that its national network of food banks - including the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina - has gone from feeding 32 million to 37 million people annually. This includes individuals and families who depend daily on soup kitchens as well as those who may need an extra box of food now and then.

Fraser added that some college students need access to food pantries because they are not eligible for the social safety net of government food assistance, which is determined by household income. Students, faculty and staff may check online regarding North Carolina's Food and Nutrition Services program. Those outside of North Carolina should visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program website.

Feed the Pack will provide non-perishable foods, hygiene products and toiletries in two-hour blocks on weekdays. Specific hours of operations will be posted on its Facebook page, Feed the Pack: The NC State Food Pantry. For more information or to volunteer, email feedthepackpantry@ncsu.edu.

To minimize the potential impact of stigma, NC State's Giancola said volunteers are being trained under strict guidelines that both welcome program users and prohibit discussion of their identities.

"Volunteers might encounter other students they know, or they might assist faculty experiencing a family hardship," he said. "Our priority is to promote the model of ‘for the campus, by the campus.' There won't be a situation about judgment about anyone needing help. As a community that cares, we want to make sure we take care of our own by our own."

Julie E. Owen, Assistant Professor of Leadership and Integrative Studies at New Century College of George Mason University, published a paper this year examining the design and delivery of collegiate student leadership programs. She found the Feed the Pack model of students serving their own community innovative and attractive for others campuses to replicate.

"There is a factor of scaling with this that is really positive," Owen said. "Anytime students talk to someone who is having a different experience than themselves, they get another perspective on the world. It creates a change in attitude that makes them want to seek out the other side of the story."

Owen found that students who first experience volunteering through food charity are more likely to participate in social justice efforts. "The more they engage in this important work, they realize there are some larger systemic issues involved. These acts of philanthropy are doorways to larger social actions."

It also develops a skill set that is attractive to future employers. Student volunteers gain "citizenship, activism and knowledge that can serve them a lifetime," Owen said. "People who can work with diverse communities and can perspective-take are desirable employees. Student leadership builds values and commitment. There's also the dimension of how knowing more about yourself enables you to better work with others." 

Monique McLeary, NSCU 2014, is an Institute for Nonprofits Student Ambassador who serves on the Feed the Pack advisory board. She is optimistic that her service will open doors for future professional opportunities, but right now she's focused on aiding her campus community.

"I know what it's like to be food insecure as a student. I grew up in Jamaica and experienced it personally," McLeary said. "It's a great opportunity to use my nonprofit studies and give back to the community."

McLeary, who has worked on the project since its inception, is especially glad that the food pantry will open in time to assist the students, faculty and staff during the stressful last weeks of the semester, and to help put food on holiday tables.

"I'm very happy we're opening that fast, and with this much support," said McLeary, who gathered with other student volunteers to sort and stack initial donations. "It feels great to be able to say we're here for you."

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