While providing food is the primary focus of the pantry, connecting students to additional resources also is an important part of their mission.
Two years ago, Texas Tech University introduced Raider Red's Food Pantry. Located in Doak Hall, the resource combined the existing on-campus food pantries and opened with two main goals: reducing hunger and food insecurity among students and encouraging campus engagement and education on how to accomplish those reductions.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pantry closed in March along with the rest of the Texas Tech campus, sending most students off-campus to begin distance learning. But when students returned to campus in August, the pantry also reopened, with new operating procedures to keep pantry staff and students who use the resource safe and healthy.
"College students across the country, including students at Texas Tech, are experiencing food insecurity, and the food pantry is a great way to provide them a short-term solution," said Kimberly Thornton, senior director of the Center for Campus Life. "We are family at Texas Tech and want to help our students in every way we can."
Finding a way to serve students
Before the official debut of Raider Red's Food Pantry in 2018, other efforts had existed to help students tackle food insecurity, including the Wreck Hunger Graduate & International Pantry, which served the graduate and international student communities beginning in 2016. Discussions between several campus groups began during summer 2016 about how to expand on that work.
"As we were working with students to explore the creation of a food pantry, we realized many other campuses were in the process of creating a food pantry or had recently created a pantry," said Matthew Gregory, dean of students. "This realization reinforced our belief that a food pantry on campus would fulfill a definite need at Texas Tech."
In August 2017, the collaborative efforts of the Center for Campus Life, the Office of the Dean of Students, Student Affairs, the Student Government Association and the Graduate School culminated in the soft launch of a food pantry, with the Wreck Hunger pantry also continuing to serve as a resource until their final combination. Raider Red's Food Pantry celebrated its grand opening in August 2018.
"Many students experience food insecurity while completing a degree," said Elizabeth Massengale, assistant dean of students and managing director of Parent & Family Relations who was involved in the creation of the pantry. "Raider Red's Food Pantry is a support program to assist students during those times. There are times when students need to spend funds on other expenses besides groceries, and the food pantry helps support students with supplemental food."
Led by Ileana Hinojosa, an administrator in the Center for Campus Life, the pantry staff includes one undergraduate and one graduate student worker. Raider Red's Food Pantry now serves countless students each semester who say they are grateful for its existence.
"Having the pantry on campus helps them to not go hungry and to be able to concentrate on their studies," Hinojosa said. "Students have shared that it has helped them provide for themselves and make it to that next paycheck or that next meal. They're always very thankful for all those who donate."
Though the pantry did not operate during the closure of the campus and the following summer months, the staff used that time to provide information on the pantry website about other resources available to students and to prepare for their return to campus.
"As we were planning, we assumed that the pantry would be a lot busier this fall due to all the different things that impacted our students' financial situations over the last few months," Hinojosa said. "We prepared to have as much food as possible in order to accommodate the higher number of visits that we expected to have. Since we reopened on Aug. 17, we have seen an increase in visits."
Accessing the pantry
Before the pandemic, students who accessed the pantry were able to visit during operating hours, which were posted on the pantry website and shared on pantry Facebook page, and shop the items available. To reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, that process now looks a bit different.
"Our space inside the pantry is not big enough to practice social distancing," Hinojosa said. "Because of that, and to prevent items being touched multiple times, we decided to do prepackaged bags so we could continue providing to students in a safer environment."
To pick up a food bag, students should first check the pantry website for current operating hours. Once they arrive at the pantry, located on the first floor of Doak Hall in room 117, the student must show their student ID and complete a short, electronic intake form on the provided iPad.
"Just like in any other campus building, students need to have their mask on when they visit," Hinojosa said. "We have social distancing markers spaced 6 feet apart, in case there are several students visiting the pantry at the same time. We wipe down the iPad after every student or every 30 minutes. Our staff members have gloves available to them, and there is hand sanitizer next to the iPad. Inside the pantry, our student workers and I clean the space and wipe down things as we come and go."
Once the intake form is complete, students may choose from four types of food bags: vegetarian, gluten-free, Red Raider and Matador. While the latter two bags contain many similar items, there are slight differences, allowing students to choose an option that best fits their dietary preferences and needs.
Students with food allergies also may contact the pantry before their visit, and the staff will adjust their bag accordingly. All bags include canned food and other non-perishable items like beans, pasta, cereal and snacks. Students can request a can opener, if needed.
"It is a really small detail, but when we spoke with others who had helped distribute food through the previous pantry, they mentioned that some students wouldn't take cans, because they didn't always have a can opener," Hinojosa said. "We decided to purchase can openers to give to students so they are able to get any of the canned items."
The bags also currently include something students may not expect: fresh produce.
"We have a land share with the Grub Farm, which is part of the South Plains Food Bank," Hinojosa said. "The food they grow and harvest goes to the food bank and the land-share holders. With that, we are able to provide fresh produce every week, starting in June, through the end of harvest season in mid-October."
Supporting the pantry
There are several ways to support the work of the pantry. One is through the Raider Red's Food Pantry Amazon Wish List.
"This August we did a virtual food drive, and we were getting packages throughout the month, which was exciting," Hinojosa said. "It's great because then it all gets delivered straight to us. There are some items marked as high need, and that is what we typically run out of fastest while packing the bags. Even pre-COVID-19, those items were the things that ran out the fastest because that was what students tended to grab."
Hinojosa said the pantry receives many donations from on-campus departments, colleges and student organizations. A donation bin also is located outside the pantry.
"We still accept physical donations – there is just a little more planning to accept them," Hinojosa said. "Ideally, we want folks to utilize our Amazon Wish List as much as possible. At the same time, if an organization or department wants to have a drive and collect physical items, we definitely can schedule a time for them to drop off the items. We're able to either wipe down the items or put them off to the side for about 24 hours before putting them on our shelves or in our extra storage space."
Off-campus entities also are major contributors to the pantry.
"When H-E-B announced it was coming to Lubbock and opening a store, the company donated to four different agencies in the Lubbock community, and we were one of them," Hinojosa said. "Then, they wanted to learn more about the pantry, so they came to visit. They said they want to continue partnering with the pantry as best as they can. Two years ago, we had a practicum student who got his church involved and they would donate pretty regularly to the pantry. This summer, I was contacted by a different church, and so now, we're in the process of figuring out how they can donate."
Donors also can contribute through the pantry's monetary fund.
Continuing to support Red Raiders
Of all the changes the pandemic has brought, one thing that hasn't changed is that the food pantry remains a needed, on-campus resource for students. It also serves as a link to other support and services available to Red Raiders.
"The food pantry provides short-term assistance to students," Hinojosa said. "After three visits in a semester, we encourage students to connect with one of our Dean of Students representatives, because it's possible that if they need to visit the food pantry multiple times, there may be more going on than food insecurity."
This semester, each bag a student receives will include a handout about Raider Relief and a link to the program website where students can find information about on- and off-campus resources related to things like child care, employment and financial support, housing options and transportation as well as medical and behavioral health services.
"The Raider Relief program was developed to support the needs of students and connect them with the most essential resources required to achieve academic goals," Massengale said. "The food pantry was a natural connection to ensure we were serving students with food needs."
While providing food is the primary focus of the pantry, connecting students to additional resources also is an important part of their mission. Hinojosa said this collaborative effort helps ensure that all students have access to the help and support they need, no matter what that need is.
"Our goal is to be able to connect them with all the additional resources that can help them be as successful as possible," Hinojosa said. "Being well-fed and supported is vital in order to be successful as a student."