ATLANTA—When Panther’s Pantry manager and coordinated program (CP) graduate nutrition student Laura Brown closed the pantry for spring break, she didn’t know that March 13 would be the last day it would provide food to Georgia State students for a while.
By the next week, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university to suspend normal operations, finishing the semester via distance learning.
Typically, the Atlanta campus pantry and locations at Perimeter campuses give out food once a week to students in need. About 845 Georgia State students visited the pantries to receive food during spring before the shutdown.
Closing the campus to students did not eliminate the need. Like more than 390,000 Georgians, many Georgia State students lost jobs. About 57 percent of the student body comes from low-income families.
“In February, we served 658 visitors and gave out more than 4,050 pounds of food. Of the 658 households, there were a total of 1,456 people in those households combined,” said Brown.
Included in the total were 137 children under the age of 17 and 85 adults over the age of 65.
“So, our reach goes far beyond those that we see,” Brown said.
Brown and pantry faculty adviser Molly Paulson jumped into action to help the students. She and the students pulled a list of all students who had received food from the pantry during the spring semester. Two other CP students, Lina Abuhamdieh and Will Conrad, developed a map using the drop off locations developed by Atlanta Public Schools as well as contact information for five nearby food banks students visit to get food. The team emailed the information to the students in need.
The university quickly established an emergency assistance fund to help all enrolled students in need. The students applied for the funds to cover a range of emergency financial needs, but more than 80 percent applying requested funds for food.
How does the Panther’s Pantry meet the needs of more than 845 food-insecure Georgia State students during the COVID-19 pandemic campus closure? By compiling contact information on clients and sharing information on available area food banks.
With fellow CP students, Brown developed a social media campaign with information on locating food away from the university. CP students developed recipes using common food pantry ingredients and shared details on how to apply for the university’s Emergency Assistance Fund. Other CP students completing clinical rotations (internships) at the pantry wrote food safety tips, info sheets on immunity-building foods and tips on how to stock a personal pantry with healthy foods to eat during the pandemic. Brown set up a YouTube channel and posted most of these tips and infographics on the site.
The food in the pantry at the time of campus closures did not go to waste. Brown and Paulson initially considered creating brown bag emergency food kits and delivering them on the campuses. Logistics and stay-at-home orders encouraged them to discard that idea. Instead, they donated the perishable and expiring food to Goodr, a company that serves non-profits by redistributing food to reduce hunger and prevent waste.
When asked about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on food insecurity in the future, Brown noted that the problem had grown exponentially, making it difficult for food banks to meet the need.
“I expect the on-campus need is going to be great once we are able to open our physical location. As a pantry, our goal is to support those students and staff experiencing food insecurity and relieve that stress,” said Brown. “Moving forward, I think we are going to have to work as a team with our great community and campus partners to ensure we can meet the growing needs.”
Paulson agrees, stating that strengthening partnerships among food banks, shelters and sources of food is vital.
“We need to find a way to work smarter so that food can easily be re-routed to where there is a need and limit waste,” Paulson said.
Brown urged everyone to help reduce food waste and make the most of resources. She recommends using shelf-stable pantry products like canned fruits and vegetables, rice and pasta, beans and lentils, and canned meats.
“These items typically are much cheaper, have a longer shelf-life and can be utilized in a variety of recipes,” she said. “The Panther’s Pantry website has recipes for every meal and snack of the day that utilizes those pantry staples. Also, if you are fortunate to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, don’t forget you can often freeze those so they can last longer and not go to waste.”