Little Ram Pantries pilot program aims to combat food insecurity among VCU students

Little Ram Pantries are expanding to new locations on Monroe Park and MCV Campus. Photo by Megan Lee

Katharine DeRosa, News Editor

Environmental studies professor John Jones said the only times he felt food secure growing up were when he was on his university’s meal plan, which was funded by the student loans Jones is still paying off.

Now, Jones is working to address food insecurity on VCU’s campus and destigmatize the use of the campus food pantry by creating miniature versions readily available in various campus locations. The miniature versions are called “Little Ram Pantries.”

Food insecurity is defined as a social condition of uncertain or limited access to food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of administrators or adults in the regular world, who went to college, think that you know, college kids eating ramen is kind of like a right of passage, that’s just kind of like what has to happen, and I think that that’s actually pretty awful,” Jones said.

Jones said he was affectionately known as “Soup” by his housemates during college — because of the amount of soup he ate on a daily basis.

Little Ram Pantries is a pilot program that extends the university’s food pantry across campus. The Little Ram Pantries are boxes located in five different indoor locations on campus, according to Jones. The locations include the James Branch Cabell Library, Academic Learning Commons, Cary Street Gym, Cary & Belvidere residence hall and the University Student Commons.

Students can open up the boxes and either take food or leave food. Only nonperishable items can be donated, Jones said. 

Jones said he wishes the “idea” of having emergency access to food or nutritional assistance would “fade into the background of day-to-day life at VCU” in the coming years.

“A student sees another student, getting some food out of the pantry. Nobody thinks twice about it. It’s just like getting The Commonwealth Times out of the box,” Jones said. “Not weird or strange or any sort of negative affiliation at all.”

Jones said he was first inspired to develop the idea when he was on a walk around the Church Hill neighborhood last December. He saw someone put food into a pantry there.

“I was still very surprised that it existed and that people were actively putting food in there,” Jones said.

More than just food can be donated to the pantries, Jones said. The program is also encouraging students to donate or take various hygiene items to the boxes, including menstrual products.

“The pink tax is real,” Jones said. “We need to be doing a job of making sure that those products are available for the people that need those products.”

Success of the Little Ram Pantries program is being measured by sensors located inside the doors, Jones said. The sensors track when the boxes are opened and closed to measure how often people are either taking products out of or putting products in the pantries. The sensors were developed by engineering student Lauren Linkous, Jones said.

The Little Ram Pantries Pilot program began on Oct. 8. The pantries are located across campus. Photo by Megan Lee

Jones also said there is a virtual survey that he encourages students to take to help provide feedback on the pantries. 

Youngmi Kim, a professor in the School of Social Work, has an interest in food insecurity, according to her faculty biography. Recent research of hers show that 35% of students are experiencing food insecurity, according to VCU News. Jones said Kim’s research was a factor in his idea to establish Little Ram Pantries.

“But with more than 35% of VCU students suffering from food insecurity, I was pretty motivated to try to come up with some way of trying to help mitigate that problem,” Jones said.

Kim worked on a presentation with Kaija Craft, alumna of the School of Social Work graduate program, and Jennifer Murphy, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, titled “Food is Last on My List.” The project, which was released this year, is focused on food insecurity on an urban college campus, according to the VCU Scholars Compass, which exhibits student and faculty research.

“Students discussed often picking quick, easy and less healthy options because they were so involved with their responsibilities,” Craft said in the presentation.

This research was done in conjunction with the Sustainable Food Access Transdisciplinary Core at the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation, otherwise known as iCubed, which provided faculty support for Jones’ work with the Little Ram Pantries. Other support for Jones’ work was funded by the Office of Community Engagement and VCU Service Learning, Jones stated in an email.

Junior English major Althea Laughon-Worrell said they’ve never been to the Ram Pantry and haven’t been inclined to visit because they previously lived at home, and groceries were not a concern for them.

“I haven’t needed to use it because I’ve been fortunate enough that my parents are willing to help me out and I also have a job, so I am also working, so with the two of those I haven’t had to experience any food insecurity,” Laughon-Worrell said.

They said they believe more can be done to support students in their nutritional needs. However, Laughon-Worrell said they grocery shop for four days at a time so they don’t see themselves having extra goods to donate.

Senior English major Kaitlyn Diana said she remembers feeling hungry late at night when she lived in a dorm because of how far away the closest grocery store was.

“I literally ate cereal with water one time because I was so hungry and I had nothing else to eat,” Diana said.

She called the idea of the hungry college kids “stupid” and referred to how it’s in complete oppositon to the idea of the “freshman 15” in which college freshmen gain 15 pounds their first semester.

“How are we supposed to be struggling college kids who don’t eat, but also gain 15 pounds of weight, because all we’re doing is eating in college?” Diana said. “It’s a paradox that makes no sense.”

Jones said he’s hopeful the “narrative of a hungry college student” is diminished through the access to food and he feels hopeful for the Little Ram Pantries’ results.

“I’ve got a strong suspicion that it is going to do something,” Jones said. “So I think we’re on the right track.”

Donations can be made to the Little Ram Pantries, or the main Ram Pantry at any time. People can also donate to the main Ram Pantry through its wishlist.

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