Each year many new and returning Spartans are coming from families who are experiencing challenging economic times. This is presenting unique challenges for many of our Spartans that are trying to do well in school, stay in school, “fit in,” and figure out what their future will look like.
While no one knows the exact number of homeless or hungry students on campus, the Dean of Students Office has provided assistance to many Spartans who are cash-strapped and or homeless. In some cases, these students were spending nights in places that are open around the clock, showering in gyms, sleeping in cars, or “couch surfing” with a succession of friends. Without support systems in place these students, many of whom prefer to remain hidden during hard times, are facing these challenges alone while struggling to provide for their own livelihood.
Partners Assisting the Homeless & Hungry Spartan (PATHS) is one of several UNCG Cares initiatives whereby the Dean of Students Office has partnered with other campus units and community agencies to connect homeless Spartans to much needed support and resources. The Reverend Andrew Mails of the Wesley-Luther Campus Ministries became aware of the unexpectedly high number of students who found themselves without enough food at the end of the month and initially began to keep cans of food in his office. He galvanized students and staff at UNCG to organize a more accessible and comprehensive approach to students in distress. With UNCG and community support, Spartan Open Pantry (SOP), The University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s food pantry for students and staff in need of assistance was launched winter of 2013. From assistance for students who need a little help at the end of the month, to homeless students and families who depend on the pantry for complete support, the SOP assists those who need a hand. Spartan Open Pantry is an important campus and community initiative in which UNCG students volunteer to serve those on and around campus who are experiencing food insecurity.
Emily Saine, a Junior studying Human Family Development Studies, and Director of the Spartan Open Pantry talks about her work in these words, “People are very surprised that there is a need for food assistance for college students.” But her work with the pantry has opened up her eyes to the greater issue of hunger and food insecurity, especially in this region. According to the 2012 report from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Greensboro North Carolina ties for the second most food hardship city in America with 23% of the population facing hunger daily. She’s observed how such a basic right such as having enough food to eat, and the lack of access to enough food has impacted the people she serves. “Some students have had to leave school for financial reasons, those financial reasons also impact whether or not someone knows when the next meal will be.” She says she has learned that, “Someone who needs help doesn’t look a certain way. You can’t see need.”
More than 90 UNCG student volunteers have served the SOP since its inception. Volunteers serve on the Advisory Council for the pantry, ensure timely food pickup at the eight locations around the campus, sort food, check expiration dates, and prepare items for distribution. Toiletries, clothing and linens are also accepted for donation and volunteers assist with the sorting, washing and folding of clothes and linens. Each Tuesday evening, from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm during the academic year, and 5:00 to 7:00 pm during the summer, College Place United Methodist Church (across the street from UNCG) opens its doors for the Spartan Open Pantry. Volunteers serve 8 to 10 cases of non-perishable food to those who come. A simple intake form tracks names, student (or staff) ID, gender, race and ethnicity, as well as a primary source of income. There is no limit as to the number of weeks people can be served. This summer 2014 has seen an increase in demand.
Volunteer John Adeolu Keku, an international student who studied at UNCG as a post baccalaureate student has been working with the SOP since its inception. His thoughts, “I wasn’t aware that there were so many students who can pay for school but who couldn’t be fed and clothed. They are so close to the margin, if something happens in their lives, and suddenly they have to choose between tuition and food, they will try and hang in there with less food.” Studying to attend medical school, Adeolu’s experience with the food pantry has changed his career goals. “Before, I wanted to work in a laboratory with my medical degree. That’s all changed now. I don’t want to be doing just research but actively working to serve people, it is really what makes the difference and it is the most rewarding of my experience.”
His observations align with observations of Assistant Dean of Students Laura Andrews. She remarks, “The stigma is so strong for a student to come and seek assistance for food, especially from a university official, we don’t see them until things are bad. Frequently they haven’t eaten for the past two days, or there is “$0” in the bank account. “ She explains, “Although a student who is in distress might be talking to her about any number of stressors, a light bill or rent coming due, car repairs, or medical expense, these stressors frequently boil down to a financial need. The SOP can be used to defer funds to something urgent that might make the difference between whether a student is able to remain in school or not.” She’s never encountered a student who diverted the money saved by using the SOP to a video game. As well as the actual food, she says the message that UNCG cares for its students is strong. She sees other students who are not in difficult situations help both the SOP and the Greensboro area food pantries with food drives organized by students in residence halls, student organizations and even within the entire division of Student Affairs. Greensboro being highlighted as a national food desert has contributed to student awareness of the lack of a basic necessity in a community of plenty.
The pantry serves 20 – 30 people per week, some pick up for themselves and others for a family. The pantry serves primarily UNCG students, however neighboring community members are a part of the outreach as well. Since January of 2013, 168 adults have received food assistance, of those, 146 were students, 4 UNCG staff, 9 graduate students, and 9 neighbors. Additionally, the pantry served 13 children of UNCG students.
Written by Cathy Hamilton, PhD, UNCG Office of Leadership and Service-Learning