Food insecurity is on the rise on college campuses across the nation, and Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University is no exception to the trend. In a 2017 survey entitled “Healthy Minds,” one in five PLU students reported experiencing food insecurity ranging from “once in a while” to “sometimes.” Four percent of students indicated they go hungry “a lot” or “all of the time.”
These staggering statistics, along with a rising number of students sharing food insecurity concerns with PLU faculty, alerted campus leaders to the need for a response to this growing trend. These efforts led to the formation of the PLU Pantry, an on-campus food pantry where students can pick up ingredients for a meal, toiletries and other necessities with the swipe of a student ID.
University Pastor Jen Rude first became aware of the growing number of food-insecure students after several professors came to her with concerns about students’ lack of access to nutritious meals.
“We had a couple folks reach out to Campus Ministry to say, ‘I know this is a need among my students. What do we have on campus?’” Rude explained.
Shortly thereafter, Vice President of Student Affairs Joanna Royce-Davis asked Campus Ministry to create an on-campus food pantry. Rude asked Melannie Cunningham, PLU Director of Multicultural Outreach and Engagement, to spearhead the project. Cunningham founded the pantry, originally known as the Blessing Corner, in spring 2018. Since then, she’s done everything from strategizing around national food insecurity trends to making grocery store runs in order to keep the pantry stocked.
Creating a thriving, sustainable on-campus pantry has been a community-wide effort. In the pantry’s early days, several PLU offices held food drives to help fill its shelves. Today, the PLU Pantry is sustained both by staff and student donations and by frequent deliveries from Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief agency that became a pantry partner in October 2019.
Under Cunningham’s leadership, the pantry has grown from a modest initiative to one that serves hundreds of students each year. Campus Ministry documented 800 uses of the pantry last semester, a number that only continues to grow. Cunningham also solicited the support of Act Six Scholars, who have helped to shape the program’s direction and ensure the pantry is relevant to the students who use it.
Now housed inside Campus Ministry on the first floor of the AUC, students can access the pantry 24 hours a day. Social work major Lilly Bulski ‘22 started working at the PLU Pantry in November 2019. During her shift, Bulski unloads food and replenishes the pantry’s shelves with fresh food, grab-and-go snacks, toiletries, and staples for students with various dietary needs. She said the pantry keeps a large supply of fresh food on hand and tries to respond to student requests as much as possible.
Bulski said the PLU Pantry is an essential resource for students who live off campus or don’t have meal plans, and for whom money is tight. “Oftentimes we’re not getting the full balanced meal that we need,” Bulski said. “The food pantry allows students who are off campus or run out of dining dollars to get a balanced meal.”
As awareness of the PLU Pantry grows, so does the number of students who access it. In her interactions with students who use the pantry, Bulski said that she hears nothing but gratitude.
And for Cunningham, that gratitude flows both directions. “It’s a blessing to me personally to be spearheading this effort (and to) know that my work is making an impact in students’ lives,” Cunningham said. “This is what ‘care’ for students looks like, as is reflected in the PLU mission statement.”