Katrina Lee, Contributing Writer
Little Ram Pantries, a pilot program that extended the university’s food pantries to satellite locations around campus, launched into operation on Oct. 8.
Environmental science professor John Jones created the program to fight food insecurity among students on campus with his service learning class, called Environments and Policies of Urban Food Systems.
Jones said that the idea behind this pilot program was so that food pantries would be more discrete and “fade into the background of day-to-day life.”
“A lot of students who maybe want to use services like a food pantry tend to feel a lot of stigma about using it,” Jones said. “They feel like they will be judged by their peers. We hope that if pantries become more common across campus, nobody will really think about it anymore.”
One hope that Jones has is to collect data about the pilot program to determine if students are using the Little Ram Pantries, and whether it is fighting food insecurity on campus. In order to collect this data, the Little Ram Pantries have sensors within the boxes that count the amount of the times the doors have been open and closed. Jones said he has already gathered promising data based on these “interactions.”
“Most of these locations have been interacted with more than 50 times a week. The Cary Street Gym location has been interacted with more than 60 times a week due to the heavy foot traffic that happens there,” Jones said.
Jones hopes students who take food out of the pantries will fill out an anonymous survey in order to collect data about the Little Ram Pantries. This data will be used to determine if the program is supporting students and fighting food insecurity on campus.
The Little Ram Pantries are located in five different indoor locations on campus. The locations include the James Branch Cabell Library, Academic Learning Commons, Cary Street Gym, Cary & Belvidere residence hall and the University Student Commons. The ultimate goal is that more Little Ram Pantries will be installed around campus soon, according to Jones.
“The hope of using this model that we are currently testing through the use of these satellite locations is to allow for more accessibility for students to get food if they need it, and to lower the stigma that students may face in potentially using services like university pantries,” Jones said.
Jones is hoping to continue this program in the spring semester service learning class with his students who are interested in the issue of food insecurity. Currently, Jones is working on a partnership with Feed More, a food bank for central Virginia, to pay for and receive food at a discounted rate that will be put in the Little Ram Pantries.
“If we have that system set up with Feed More it would make it a lot easier for us to acquire food for this program,” Jones said. “In order to make that happen, we need students to advocate for this program to be a sustainable feature of campus life to university senior officials.”
Environmental science student Claire Dilday is one of the students in Jones’ service learning class who are working to fight food insecurity on campus.
“I am hoping that the Little Ram Pantries will help bring more awareness to the main Ram Pantry and decrease the amount of food insecure students at VCU, as well as destigmatize getting help for food insecurity,” Dilday said.
Jones and his service learning students like Dilday have been refilling the Little Ram Pantries with canned food, boxed pasta, hygiene products and more every Wednesday for the last month. Students are allowed to donate food to the Little Ram Pantries as well by placing donations inside the boxes.
“I have noticed that a lot of the snacks are taken compared to the can items because the snacks are ready to eat,” Dilday said. “I notice a lot of the feminine hygiene products are taken as well, which is good that women are getting what they need.”
Associate professor Youngmi Kim at the School of Social Work at VCU has researched food insecurity at the university, along with Kaija Craft, alumna of the School of Social Work graduate program, and Jennifer Murphy, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work.
Their research consisted of using three focus groups and purposeful sampling to understand food insecurity on campus. Craft gave a presentation called “Food is Last on my List,” that discussed the findings from their research.
“Findings present that barriers to food access included limited healthy options, limited kitchen access, a lack of transportation, insufficient time and financial hardship. Students stressed the physical, mental and emotional toll of living with food insecurity,” according to the presentation.
Kim and Murphy are currently working on more research about food insecurity in connection with mental health and economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with understanding real experiences of food insecurity on college campuses, Kim stated in an email. These studies are currently under review, according to Kim.
The university’s registered dietitian, Julia Daniswicz, said there will be new food locations opening up around campus in the upcoming semesters that will add variety to the options available for students.
“There are going to be two more locations VCU is adding to the meal plan, such as Steak and Shake and Za’atar, along with the VCU grocery store, which will allow for more access to food on campus for students to live an active and healthy lifestyle,” Daniesewicz said.
The grocery store, Ram City Market, and two new dining locations are slated for a spring opening, according to a previous report from The Commonwealth Times.
Danisewicz talked about how the meal plan can be used for students who may be food insecure as it ensures access to healthy food.
“In terms of food insecurity, a balanced diet requires a variety of food from the different food groups,” Danisewicz said. “Students are able to use a variety of locations to fill these requirements, such as at Market 810, where students can get lean proteins such as turkey patties.”
Students can donate items to any Little Ram Pantry on campus. Donations to the main Ram Pantry can be made via Ram Pantry’s Amazon Wishlist.