The Patriot Pantry is managed by student workers within the realm of the Student Support and Advocacy Center in the Division of University Life. The Patriot Pantry provides non-perishable food and personal care items to George Mason University students who are unable to afford them. The pantry provides services through donations from the local community; they partner with two local churches to obtain donations. The most frequently requested items for donation to the pantry include the following: instant oatmeal packs, granola bars, pull-top cans of chicken and tuna, fruit packs, breakfast cereal bars/cereal, pasta/pasta sauce, mac and cheese, Hormel Completes, peanut butter and cheese crackers, cookies, chips and popcorn in addition to toiletry items such as body wash, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, body spray, bars of soap and feminine hygiene products. As part of the campus community food system, we were interested to learn more about The Patriot Pantry and their awareness and interaction with the campus gardens. I had the opportunity to interview Alicia Cho who is a student-worker in charge of the pantry. At her suggestion, I attempted to follow-up with her supervisor who oversees student support and community outreach, however, to date, I have not received a response to my inquiries.
Food insecurity has been defined by the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food”. Hunger is a potential consequence of food insecurity. A defining characteristic of very low food security is disrupted eating patterns due to lack of money and other resources for food. The majority of those who report very low food security also report that the food they bought doesn’t last because they don’t have money to obtain more.1 Food insecurity on campuses has been found to be an ever expanding obstacle students must overcome. Up to 15% of students have reported food insecurity and, additionally, up to 16% of students were found to be at risk for food insecurity. Food insecurity has been found to be racially disproportionate and to negatively impact mental health which may ultimately adversely affect student academic performance.2 Another study on student food insecurity found that students face food insecurity at higher rates than the general population. Estimates of college student food insecurity in the United States found food insecurity rates of 32.9% to 50.9% which can be compared to estimates of overall US household food insecurity rate of 12.3%. Students who are food insecure experience negative consequences on mental health and are at an increased risk of developing chronic disease and poor physical health in addition to increasing risk of poor academic success.3
Mobilization of campus resources and appropriate funding to reduce student food insecurity should be a high priority for any campus to ensure the success of their students. One aspect of this should involve innovative food resources to include partnering of pantries and campus community gardens. The College of University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) counsels and gives assistance to campus food banks. Off-campus food access is not always an option so strong on-campus food resources could provide significant benefits to students in need.4
The psychological benefits of gardening are countless. Community gardening provides an important activity which encourages positive mental health through satisfaction derived from fascination of the growing and harvesting process. Gardeners also tend to derive a great deal of satisfaction from simply enjoying nature. Through gardening, a strong social support network can be nurtured providing an additional mental health boost.5 Former First Lady Michelle Obama supported educating college students on the importance of eating local from both a nutritional and environmental perspective. The concept of campus gardening is further driven by students who desire to address a component of climate change. Campus gardens can be vital and sustainable if they are student driven; student gardening provides a sense of ownership and connection and can be utilized across disciplines to further educate students.6 Deepening the sense of campus community is the ability of campus gardens to provide food to campus dining halls and to donate food to those with limited access to fresh and affordable food.7 This is the necessary link to the campus pantry.
So how does the relationship between campus gardens and the Patriot Pantry stack up? The Patriot Pantry serves all George Mason University students who are taking at least one credit hour in a semester. There is an intake form which does not require financial data; an intake appointment is scheduled and necessary forms are completed. Last semester, approximately 100 students participated in the program receiving up to 30 pounds per person per week of non-perishable and toiletry items. Program availability is advertised to students through word of mouth. The Patriot Pantry is aware of the community gardens however they are unable to offer perishable items to their clients due to lack of refrigeration at the pantry due to room constraints. Again, I attempted to follow-up with a staff supervisor, but did not receive a response to my inquiries. The pantry does not directly involve itself with SNAP benefits or farmer’s markets; they do refer those in need to local agencies for further support. The staff at the pantry would be interested in collaborating in the future with the Office of Sustainability or Food and Nutrition Studies to offer opportunities to pantry participants about gardening education, nutrition education and food preparation tips using greenhouse grown produce.
From my interview with the Patriot Pantry, I have identified many opportunities and benefits to cultivating a relationship between the pantry and the campus gardens. It appears that the pantry has adequate volunteer staffing and moderate administrative support. Local partnerships between the pantry and local resources aid in its success and could be enhanced with support from the campus gardens. In my opinion, those students who receive financial aid could be targeted as potential pantry program recipients and their interests developed for campus garden participation. Campus garden participation is an on-campus activity that does not require transportation off the campus therefore transportation to obtain healthy food is reduced. Opportunities exist to help students learn how to budget, meal plan, shop and prepare meals in a nutritious manner; sustainable campus gardening is but one component in achieving food security and enhancing Mason’s educational process through development of a sense of “community”.