Food pantry seeks next step in service

WOU Food Pantry Director Rebecca Hardgrave being interviewed by KPTV reporters.

The WOU Food Pantry, housed in the Academic Programs and Support Center building, has been getting a lot of press in the past four months. Media attention has come from several newspapers and a television station, all of which is welcome support in the eyes of Director Rebecca Hardgrave ’18.

“We appreciate the attention if it helps more people know we are here,” Hardgrave said. When she started in the position in August 2016, thoughts of extensive media exposure were far from her mind.

Hardgrave, who is a non-traditional student and worked in a state job for six years before enrolling in WOU, is not one to shy away from a challenge. The food pantry’s relationship with Marion-Polk Food Share (MPFS), its main source of support, was on the rocks when Hardgrave arrived, and the shelves at WOU pantry paid testament to the situation. Hardgrave’s first priority was repairing the partnership with MPFS through stronger communication and by building trust.

Part of that communication included gathering information about WOU Food Pantry usage. Volunteers at the pantry started collecting basic information about patrons in February 2016, so by the end of February 2017, a full year’s worth of data had been collected.

“Having statistics about who we serve is important,” Hardgrave said. “I’m a big believer in transparency. It helps establish trust.”

The data show that during that year, the pantry served 3,318 adults and 775 children, sending them home with 20,742 pounds of food. Students accounted for 81.6 percent of those served; the remaining 18.4 percent likely were formerly enrolled students or members of the community. As a MPFS partner, the WOU Food Pantry is required to be open to the public, and that’s just fine with Hardgrave.

“Some of our donors want to make sure their funds are going only to students,” she said. “But we are happy to be open to anyone. The point of a food bank is to serve hungry people, and that’s what we want to do.”

Members of the Veterans Success Center collected food and delivered it to the Food Pantry.
Members of the Veterans Success Center collected food and delivered it to the Food Pantry.

The pantry gets financial and food donation support from a variety of sources. On Giving Day this year, which was March 7, the food bank reaped $400 in designated gifts. A few weeks later, the Veterans Services Center pushed several wheelbarrows full of food staples over to the pantry.

“We have a really supportive campus,” Hardgrave said. “People just walking by will help us carry items into the pantry. The Physical Plant sometimes supplies a hand truck to help us bring in things that are delivered outside the building.”

During the annual February Governor’s State Employee Food Drive, Western employees donated food and cash that amounted to 92,893 pounds of food, which will be distributed to the WOU pantry, the Ella Curran Food Bank in Independence, Marion-Polk Food Share and the Linn-Benton Food Share. This past February, WOU raised more than $8,000 in financial donations to the Food Pantry through cash gifts and payroll deductions, and approximately 350 pounds of food.

“I want to thank all of our generous staff and faculty. This is truly amazing and it goes to show how much people care about our campus community,” Hardgrave said. “I also want to thank the current administration for being supportive of us and their help in furthering our goals of pantry expansion. We want to continue to work to be innovative in the pantry’s future so that we may serve even more within our campus community.”

Hardgrave takes a weekly trip to a MPFS warehouse in Salem, where she picks out 200-300 pounds of food. She recently scored tons of vegetables seeds, a promising start for the campus garden that yields produce all summer. She tries to pick items that need to be refrigerated when she makes her weekly voyage so that she can get them quickly stowed when she returns to campus. Deliveries to the pantry sometimes sit outside the building for a while, so it’s best if those drop-offs are shelf-stable foods.

Hardgrave is proud of how far the food pantry, which was established in 2012, has come this school year. She’s thankful for the volunteers – both student and staff — who stop by the food bank during their lunch break to lend a hand for an hour or who commit to larger stretches of time.

Jackson Stalley, chairman of the 10-member Friends of the Food Pantry group, gives pantry staff kudos for building the resource’s offerings through outreach and hard work.

“They have done a great job of recruiting volunteers and promoting the pantry and its mission. As a result, patrons, volunteers, donors and operational hours have all increased,” he said. “The pantry shows how local actions make a difference and bring communities together.”

The Friends of the Food Pantry manages donations and their use, Stalley explained. The panel also offers general guidance.

“The (group) provides professional advice and institutional knowledge in support of the student-led pantry,” Stalley said. “This set-up is proving effective at WOU and perhaps could be a model for other institutions thinking about creating a food pantry.”

Hardgrave wants everyone to appreciate the importance of the resource, especially considering a 2014 study that showed 59 percent of WOU students had felt food insecure in the previous year.

“Good nutrition is a key to student success,” she said. “If you are need both textbooks and food, how can you choose between that? That decision can put people in crisis. You always think about poor college students eating nothing but ramen for months on end. But that’s not realistic for families. Many of our students are parents, and it breaks my heart to hear about a parent who has to feed their kids nothing but rice for two weeks.”

The current roster of food pantry volunteers comprises 90 people, some of whom get class credit for helping out. They sort donations and restock shelves, which recently have been expanded to include sections for hygiene products and clothing. Hardgrave recently hired Sandra Gonzales as assistant director.

Stalley, too, is grateful for the generosity of volunteers and sees the pantry as a training ground for future local involvement.

“The WOU Food Pantry draws many first-time volunteers. Their experiences in the pantry can play an important role in their future and in our communities,” he said.

Hardgrave has a lot of items on her wish list for the pantry, including its own strategic plan and a more streamlined process for attracting donors and volunteers. The pantry has been in negotiations with Valsetz Dining to close the loop on food waste on campus.

“The pantry is taking more of a leadership role, seeking new partners and opportunities for collaboration,” Stalley said. “This is exciting because students bring energy and passion, and new perspectives and solutions.”

But Hardgrave’s biggest goal is finding new digs for the food bank, which now shares space with a staff break room.

“They’ve been incredibly generous in letting us share this room,” Hardgrave said. “But we really need more space so we can help more students. It would be great find room in a more centrally located building, and then maybe we could be open on Saturdays and be open more hours the other days, too.”

Stalley agrees. “Demand for services and the capacity to meet those needs has grown and so a bigger space would be nice. We need a dedicated space that has the same easy access (including parking) for community members and students who live off campus,” he said.

In the meantime, Hardgrave and all the food pantry supporters will keep working hard to help students succeed, no matter what their financial circumstances or enrollment status.

“If we can fill that gap, if we can make life easier – even the small things is a huge plus for me,” she said.

Join the WOU Food Pantry Facebook group to get involved and learn more about its services.