Published May 26, 2022
By Molly Petrilla
Rutgers University food pantries are making progress in addressing student food insecurity, a nationwide problem on college campuses
Millions of college students struggle to afford food every day.
In a recent survey from The Hope Center, 39 percent of students at two-year colleges and 29 percent at four-year schools reported experiencing food insecurity. And it’s not only undergraduates who have these challenges, but master’s and doctoral students, too. A 2020 study found that roughly one in three Rutgers–New Brunswick students across all degree levels experiences food insecurity.
“Zoe” (not her real name) is one of them. As a graduate student putting herself through school—and trying not to accumulate sky-high loans—she’d resigned herself to living on instant noodles while earning her degree. Then a colleague recommended the Rutgers Student Food Pantry in New Brunswick. Like similar food resource centers located across the Rutgers community, this food pantry is part of the Scarlet Promise Initiative, a universitywide call to action designed to help students focus on their goals rather than on financial obstacles. “I had an idea of what a food pantry was in my mind, and I felt weird about going,” Zoe remembers. “I didn’t feel entitled to it, and I didn’t want to take anything from anybody else who might need it more.”
But when her friend persisted, Zoe eventually made the trip. From the moment she walked inside the pantry in 2019, “it immediately became clear that they are there for anybody who needs anything,” she says. “Everyone was wonderfully welcoming and warm and completely nonjudgmental. I felt totally at home and comfortable.”
She still stops by most weeks to pick up fresh produce, milk, and other essentials. “The kind of relief that it provides is impossible to describe,” she says. “It’s just so incredible not having to worry about how I’m going to afford certain things, like food.”
The New Brunswick pantry that Zoe uses is one of four student food pantries spread across Rutgers. There’s also the Raptor Pantry at Rutgers–Camden, PantryRUN at Rutgers–Newark, and the RBHS Food Pantry, which opened in Newark this past November.
For the three Rutgers pantries operating long before March 2020, the pandemic has required pivots they could never have imagined. But even at the height of the COVID-19 storm, they never stopped serving students like Zoe who rely on them. They weathered the worst of these last few years and are approaching a new normal now.
Pantries in a Pandemic
The New Brunswick student food pantry was well into its fourth year when COVID-19 began to sweep through New Jersey. Thanks to local food banks, campus food drives, and other donations, the pantry’s shelves were well stocked for any Rutgers student. The pantry had fresh produce on Tuesdays and extended hours on Fridays and Saturdays.
On March 10, 2020, when Rutgers canceled classes and began preparing for remote instruction, the New Brunswick pantry stayed open. But three days later, the staff switched from in-person shopping to handing out pre-packed bags of food. As most grocery stores struggled with supply, the New Brunswick pantry had plenty to serve students in need.
And even with so few students left on campus, things were busier than ever. Kerri Willson, who oversees the New Brunswick pantry as associate dean of students, says her pantry saw around 75 student shoppers each week pre-pandemic. During the earliest weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, that number jumped to 200.
“We had students with families who lived here year-round,” Willson says. “We had international students who couldn’t get out of the country. We had students who aged out of foster care and saw this [campus] as their home.” And all these people still needed to eat.
So, in April 2020, the New Brunswick team found another way to serve students—a mobile food pantry. The new pantry van traveled to multiple locations across the New Brunswick campuses, distributing fresh produce and bags of groceries. At the height of the pandemic, students did not want to get on the Rutgers buses, Willson says. “So we started bringing the food pantry to them.”
In Newark, PantryRUN also stayed open. The pantry saw about 300 visitors a week pre-pandemic and about 100 a week during the pandemic, including students who were unable to go home and some who came to campus just to visit the pantry. They switched to pre-packed bags during the pandemic’s early days and still managed to keep dairy and fresh produce in circulation. Because fresh produce was in exceptionally high demand, the pantry hosted three free farmer’s markets on campus. Later, they launched an online ordering system for students who wanted to choose their own items.
Madrid Moore, who runs the Raptor Food Pantry at Rutgers–Camden, turned to using telephone orders. Students gave their orders over the phone, and the pantry team prepared them for pickup. Her pantry even offered to deliver orders to students who were still in the dorms. “We never closed,” Moore says, even as the rest of campus—and most of the state—shut down for days that became weeks and then months.
A New Normal
By the fall of 2021, as the world started to resume normalcy, student food pantries did too, and today all four of Rutgers’ pantries are serving students in person again.
Since July 2021, Camden’s pantry has provided 7,745 pounds of food to over 700 students. While Moore says her pantry is still seeing lower numbers than they did pre-pandemic, it’s been the opposite at New Brunswick—Rutgers’ largest student food pantry—which distributed more than 23,000 pounds of food in the fall 2021 semester alone.
Willson says the New Brunswick pantry nearly doubled its number of visitors in fall 2021 compared to fall 2018. “I think part of it is that the pandemic has really impacted people’s resources,” she says. “But even though our numbers have increased, they’re still nowhere near what our research shows the need is.”
The pantries are carrying forward several pandemic-induced changes. New Brunswick has kept their mobile food pantry rolling since it’s proven popular. PantryRUN still offers online ordering, and Moore says Raptor Pantry has continued using an appointment system that they put in place during COVID-19. “I think that’s one of the changes we’ll probably keep because it’s working so well for us,” she says.
As they emerge from the pandemic, Rutgers’ pantries also hope to make more students aware that they exist and dissolve the stigma that keeps some from stepping inside. Moore and Willson say students often hesitate to use the pantries because they believe others must have it harder than they do.
“If you don’t have food and you’re struggling to get food—even if you just need a snack—just come use the food pantry,” Moore says. “We don’t want anyone to go without food.”
Zoe, who was once one of those hesitant pantry-goers, says she now feels “incredibly lucky” to have found it and encourages other students to check it out. “It is one of the most helpful and life-changing parts of my life right now,” she adds.