World Food Program USA predicts that, by the end of 2020, the number of individuals who are food-insecure could “almost double,” affecting 265 million people. This huge spike will be due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it decreases one’s level of access, both physically and financially, to food. On Lesley’s campus, a fixture exists to provide commuter students with a reliable source of food: the Commuter Food Pantry. Serving “commuter students in need,” the Pantry acts as a support system for commuter students looking for some sustenance to get through the day. Perhaps more importantly, this food is offered free of charge, meaning that commuters experiencing food insecurity or financial instability can rely on the Pantry to meet their needs.
Due to COVID-19, however, the Commuter Food Pantry remains closed for the foreseeable future. Without students or staff on campus, the Pantry is unable to be open, and thus it cannot serve its target population. How are the students who relied upon the Pantry getting along without a dependable food source? What resources are available to them off-campus?
To find out, I spoke to Linda Elliott, Director of Commuter Student Services. I wanted to learn more about the measures in place to provide for students in the absence of the Commuter Food Pantry.
Lesley Public Post: If you have an exact number, how many students relied on the Commuter Food Pantry for meals while on-campus this semester?
Linda Elliott: In the spring semester, we had 557 students registered to use the food pantry, but not all those who were registered were active users. We were seeing an average of 301 visits each week, but many students visited more than once a week.
LPP: Have you spoken to any of those students who regularly utilized the Commuter Food Pantry? How are they managing now that they are away from campus full-time?
Elliott: I’ve emailed all registered users a list of local resources in case they were in need but haven’t checked in on their food needs. I imagine that some are struggling for a number of reasons – finances, access to a grocery store, limited stock, and so forth.
LPP: Is there a comparable resource for students experiencing food insecurity in the Cambridge/Boston area? For example, do you know of any pantries or community centers giving away free or reduced-cost food?
Elliott: There are a lot of resource[s] right now, including Project Bread’s Food Source Hotline, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Food for Free, just to name a few. Anyone who has a school-aged child (5-18) can utilize the school lunch programs for anyone experiencing food insecurity due to school closings.
LPP: Are there any plans to distribute food from the Commuter Food Pantry, similar to how public schools are continuing their distribution of free lunches to students? If not, do you know what might become of any unused food from this semester (donated, saved until the fall semester, etc.)?
Elliott: Luckily, there is not a lot of food in the Food Pantry right now. We were running low before spring break and we got word that classes would be moving online before we had a chance to restock. There are no plans to distribute the remaining items yet as all campus buildings are closed, but I hope that once campus buildings reopen, we can take stock of what is still available and determine what to do with it at that point. A lot of our products have a long shelf life and can be saved until the fall semester, but I hope that we can find a way to distribute anything that won’t last until fall, whether that’s to Lesley students in need or to community organizations.
LPP: Who should students contact if they are currently experiencing or worried about food insecurity? Are there any steps they should take?
Elliott: If students are concerned about food insecurity, they can contact me for a list of resources (email@example.com) or they can contact Dean Mays (firstname.lastname@example.org). Massachusetts residents can contact Project Bread’s toll-free Food Source Hotline at 1-800-645-8333, which is a comprehensive statewide information and referral service in Massachusetts for people facing hunger.
[Author’s note: I reached out to Nathaniel Mays, Dean of Students, who added, “The one thing that came to mind about the Pantry and supporting students while we are off campus is that, unlike the Public Schools whose students are in one community, our students are spread out in every direction which makes it difficult for us to try to duplicate what the Public Schools do with their food program. We do provide information about places where students can get food support and are able to offer small emergency grants for students in need of food.”]