Eastern food pantry celebrates 1-year anniversary

Skylar+Oliver%2C+a+junior+elementary+education+major%2C+hands+Stephanie+Riera%2C+a+freshman+criminology+major%2C+bags+of+various+food+such+as+cereal+and+crisps+from+the+food+pantry+inside+McAfee+on+Friday+afternoon.

Yari Tapia

Skylar Oliver, a junior elementary education major, hands Stephanie Riera, a freshman criminology major, bags of various food such as cereal and crisps from the food pantry inside McAfee on Friday afternoon.

Kyara Morales-Rodriguez, Campus Reporter

Nearly a year ago, on Sept. 30, 2021, University President David Glassman and Vice President of Student Affairs Anne Flaherty cut a blue ribbon outside the gymnasium, signifying the grand opening of the food pantry.  

Located in the basement of McAfee Gym sits the EIU Campus Food Pantry, its shelves stocked with ravioli, peanut butter, canned beans, and many other food items—all available for students and staff who may need them.

This food pantry was the year-long passion project of Crystal Brown, the assistant director of Civic Engagement and Volunteerism, Beth Hammond, the former director of CEVO, and many other people on campus who were passionate about food insecurity.  

Before all that, however, there was an idea forming in the Civic Engagement and Volunteerism office, one that was nearly a decade in the making. It started by identifying a problem: college students do not have enough access to affordable, nutritious food.  

“Crystal Brown and I worked together for almost seven years, and the entire time that we worked together, she kept completely focused on wanting to get a food pantry on campus and wanting to serve students in that way,” Hammond said. “It just was something that she was unwavering on wanting to make happen.” 

In order to have a food pantry on campus, there had to be proof that there was a need for it, that Eastern was struggling with food insecurity.  

That is where the research by Michael Gillespie, the director of the Faculty Development and Innovation Center and professor of sociology, criminology and anthropology, came in.  

Gillespie has been studying issues of poverty, hunger and food insecurity for years, but an incident with one of his students inspired him to focus on how food insecurity affects college students.  

About nine years ago, during finals week, a student shared with Gillespie that she and her husband had their food stamps cut off, and they were having a really hard time accessing food.  

“To me, at the time, it said that it doesn’t matter who the student is,” Gillespie said. “[Food insecurity] can affect our best and our brightest and our students who struggle with all sorts of social issues. That’s when I really decided that I was going to focus on food insecurity of students.”

Gillespie began working on his multi-year study of food insecurity at Eastern, doing a survey every October to see how many students are food insecure.  

“We used the research that Dr. Michael Gillespie does on campus about our students’ food insecurity, which about 40 percent of our students report that they experienced food insecurity on an annual basis,” Brown said. “We knew there was a need on our campus.”  

His research not only showed that there was food insecurity on campus, it also showed that food insecurity was impacting students’ education, social life and overall health.  

“It’s so important that [the food pantry] is there because we know the data shows that if students don’t have access to enough healthy food, it hurts a student’s ability to be successful in the classroom, to retain information, to continue on that path to graduation,” Hammond said.  

During those years, many attempts were made to open up a food pantry, but the timing was never quite right. CEVO tried to find ways to best serve students until the day they could get the food pantry approved. 

Victoria Tegge, a nutrition and dietetics graduate student, looks around in the food pantry inside McAfee Gym Friday afternoon. (Yari Tapia)

Then during the fall of 2020, nearly a year before the grand opening, solid plans for the food pantry began.  

“There was like a million pieces that were all trying to come together at once,” Hammond said. “It was like every time we got something done, we felt like we added five more things to the to-do list.” 

It was a year of analyzing research, writing proposals, meeting with administration and more, a lot of planning occurred before the food pantry was even approved.  

“The proposal that we put together in 2021 was exceptionally thorough,” Hammond said. “I am not someone who says things happen for a reason. That’s just not how I’m oriented to the world. But I do feel like we were never as prepared and as ready than we were in 2021, when we put that proposal together.” 

The opening of the food pantry was not only due to extensive research, but also due to all the support from the community, seeing as the food pantry is completely funded through donations. 

“There is no money from EIU that’s coming to get that food, and the support we had from the community, from faculty and staff making donations, from student groups donating food, it was amazing,” Hammond said. “The outpouring of support was incredible and made it possible.”  

Gillespie said that this food pantry was not only made possible by a handful of people, but by the support of hundreds of people. He said that thinking about all the people who came together for this purpose “still blows my mind.” 

“This is your food pantry because literally hundreds of people stepped up to make this happen,” Gillespie said. “It was the rallying of so many people, and that’s what makes it so great.” 

In the spring of 2021, CEVO got approval from the administration to open up the food pantry. They had just a couple of months to figure out the final steps before the grand opening.  

“We were able to start doing the logistical side of it, figuring out what foods we wanted to provide, how much we could provide for our students each month, and we were able to get all the food ordered and open our doors,” Brown said. “It will be a year on Oct. 1 that we’ve been open, and we are really excited at how successful it’s been and how much these students are really valuing the food that we’re able to provide them.” 

In its first year, the food pantry served over 950 students.  

A collection of drinks available from the food pantry. (Yari Tapia)

Brown said that she is passionate about supporting Eastern’s students, and she is glad the pantry has allowed her to do that this past year.  

“We really are just very pleased that we’re able to provide this and see them take that and be more successful in the classroom,” Brown said.  

Gillespie said that this food pantry is the most important thing he has done in his career.

“When you care about something so much you will do anything that you need to do to see that through, you don’t give up,” he said. “I think that was the best part of the morning that we cut the ribbon last year. It meant that nothing was wasted on the projects.” 

Brown said that since the start of the fall semester, the food pantry has seen over 300 students.  

“I do anticipate based on that, that we’re going to see an increase this year on the students’ needs, so we’re really hoping that our campus community or student organizations, our local community, will continue to support us…” Brown said.  

Those calculations did not surprise Hammond, who said that when they first opened up the food pantry, they thought they would consistently see 20 students a day by that May and were wrong.  

“I think we had 23 or 24 students that very first day that the pantry was open, and Crystal and I were like, ‘I think we underestimated this,’” Hammond said. “I’m not surprised to hear that there have been 300 students so far. I mean, again, it just goes back to there is a need and there is a way to support our students in this really critical, important way.” 

This school year, the food pantry was able to make some changes to best serve the Eastern community.  

“We are super excited to, I guess really formally announce publicly, that we now have, on a smaller scale, bread, produce like carrots, bananas, grapes, eggs, milk,” Brown said. “We’re really excited to be able to start offering some of those healthy fresh items as well.”  

Hammond said she hopes the food pantry continues to be supported so that it can keep changing depending on the students wants and needs. She said that something Brown and her paid close attention to was what food items students were asking for the most and which ones students were “more excited about.” It helped them make decisions about the future of the pantry.  

“[I hope] that at some point in the future, it’s not needed, but until then, that it’s supported and continues to evolve with students’ needs and takes care of them until it’s not necessary anymore,” Hammond said.

 

Kyara Morales-Rodriguez can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]