Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer
With VCU’s Monroe Park Campus eerily quiet, it’s unsurprising that shelves in a room of the University Student Commons are full of fresh, donated produce and boxes of food.
The room is home to Ram Pantry, a service that provides donated grocery items to food-insecure students. Since the onset of COVID-19, limited contact has left much of the food up for grabs.
“People used to just come in,” student volunteer Mary Villegas said. “Now, it’s by appointment only. There’s no contact.”
The sophomore nursing and psychology major, who has volunteered at the pantry since August, said she usually sees around five people during her three-and-a-half-hour shifts.
Before COVID-19 restrictions, students could walk into the pantry and select items off the shelves. Now, they order pantry items through an online form. Volunteers box students’ orders and bring them to a back door at the commons, where pantry users can pick up the boxes.
The shelves in the pantry are lined with food including cereal, canned vegetables, peanut butter and other non-perishable goods. Refrigerated items are kept in a large cooler in the back of the room.
The pantry is open Monday through Thursday from noon until 5 p.m. For a full schedule, visit Ram Pantry’s website.
Kendall Plageman, assistant dean for student affairs at VCU, said one reason the pantry is getting less use is because many students are off campus this semester.
“The overall usage has been lower during the pandemic as you would expect given less students in the Richmond area.” — Kendall Plageman, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs.
The Ram Pantry intake form, which all pantry users must submit before they can receive food from the pantry, lists some requirements to use the pantry. The form states users must be a VCU student, may only visit once per week and must accept the food in “as-is” condition.
The form also states students must not “sell, barter, nor give away” any of the food they receive from the pantry.
Ram Pantry receives food donations from Kroger and Target, as well as local organizations such as the Pace Center. Produce comes from Hungry Harvest, a delivery service that sells rescued produce that would have otherwise been thrown away by farms.
Sydney Wojcieszak, a senior chemical engineering student, is conducting her work-study at the pantry. She says the pantry still takes individual donations, and food is quarantined in a storage room for two days before distribution.
Wojcieszak said because they have so much produce, they’ve had to throw some away. They recently started a “surplus program,” which donates extra produce that’s about to go bad.
“Older produce, basically when it’s not super fresh, we’ll have that out and tell people just to take as many as they want,” Wojcieszak said.
In a Richmond Times-Dispatch article from Oct. 29, Lisa Matthews-Ailsworth, who runs the pantry, said around 20 to 30 students come for food per week. Before the pandemic, around 50 students would come in weekly.
The article cited a VCU estimate that 8,000 of its students are in need of food assistance, far less than the number of people the pantry is currently serving.
Business administration major Sam Diso said he may consider volunteering at Ram Pantry when the pandemic is over.
“I would say, with the extra food they should donate it,” the junior said. “Maybe help out with canned food drives around the area.”