University to host GivingTuesday food and fund drive to end hunger on campus

November 14, 2022
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

Three years ago, students and university departments opened a food pantry at Worcester State University after a survey revealed that about a third of  students experience moderate or very strong levels of food insecurity.

Today, Thea’s Pantry, on the third floor of the Student Center, is a university-wide resource, allowing any student, faculty, staff member, or alum to receive up to 35 pounds of food per week. On Nov. 29, the university will host a food and fund drive to support Thea’s Pantry as part of GivingTuesday, a global day of generosity that invites people to give what they can to drive positive change.

“On this GivingTuesday, we are asking those who can to give back in the form of food, gift cards, and cash for Thea’s Pantry to help combat hunger within our community,” said Jodi Briggs-Pickett, executive director of development. “We know the needs are real, especially for students.”

Drive-through food drop-off on Nov. 29 will be 9 a.m. – noon in front of the Student Center and donations can be made by visiting Thea’s Pantry in Room 345 of the Student Center. The pantry is open Mondays and Wednesdays 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Tuesdays 3-7 p.m. and Thursdays 4 – 8 p.m. Online gifts can be made here and checks, made payable to the Worcester State Foundation, can also be mailed to WSU University Advancement, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602. Be sure to note Thea’s Pantry in the memo field.

Lately, demand for food is on the rise, says Associate Director of Community Standards/Student Affairs Josh Katz, who coordinates the pantry. Visits increased from 35 in September to 42 in October. Part of the problem, Katz said, is likely the increasingly high cost of food. Some students, he said, just don’t have enough money to buy food. Others have purchased minimal meal plans in order to save money and pay school bills, so they need a little extra food once their meal allotment runs out.

That’s the case for one student who said they purchased the lowest meal plan and supplements that by going to the food pantry. “I got the meal plan I could afford,” the student said. “It’s good that we can go into the pantry and just grab food. We don’t have to worry about specific limitations on what we get. It can make a difference between someone getting a meal and not getting a meal.”

College students typically prefer food that is easy to prepare—heat and eat food—like meals that can be made in a microwave, Katz said. While students in the residence halls do have access to a common kitchen, not all students have pots and pans or ingredients like butter and milk needed to make macaroni and cheese. One issue that often arises with canned food is that students don’t have can openers—Katz is hoping people might be willing to donate can openers that can be given to students along with the canned goods.

In addition, he said, students are looking for snacks they can have on the go and in between meals—crackers, granola bars, bagels. The food pantry has a refrigerator and freezer and can accept donations of produce and meat, he said. Items like fresh chicken, yogurt, cheese, and eggs are always in demand and go quickly.

Along with food, Thea’s Pantry also welcomes toiletry items, gift cards to grocery stores, and cash donations, which can be made online. The pantry is a partner agency of the Worcester County Food Bank, and Katz picks up food from the food bank to stock the shelves on campus usually every other week.

The food pantry was named to honor Thea Aschkenase, who died in 2019 at the age of 95. Aschkenase graduated with a degree in urban studies in 2007 when she was in her early 80s and penned her memoir, Remembering: A Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Life, at the age of 92.

Hunger was something Aschkenase knew only too well. Her whole family, except her mother, died in Auschwitz. “Despite feeling hungry every day and never knowing if they would make it to the next day, they survived,” President Barry M. Maloney said at the ribbon cutting ceremony for Thea’s Pantry. “That one who has borne so much found it within herself to give back to others, helping the hungry, educating school children about the Holocaust, and writing her memoirs, is inspiring to all of us.”

Food insecurity among college students is a growing concern around the country, and has inspired the Hunger Free Campus bill in the Massachusetts legislature, sponsored by state Senator Harriette Chandler in Worcester. According to the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Coalition, pre-pandemic studies showed that 37 percent of students at public colleges and universities experience food insecurity and struggle to afford nutritious meals. Food insecurity at some schools reaches rates greater than 50 percent among students of color, including Latinos, immigrants, Black, and LGBTQ students.

In addition to providing food, the university, the Urban Studies Club and Chartwell’s are addressing food insecurity with the Swipe it Forward Program. All students who purchase a meal plan are given “guest swipes,” or paid meals, at Sheehan Dining Hall for friends or visitors to campus. In the Swipe it Forward program, students can donate those extra meals to fellow students. This semester, they have collected 581 extra guest swipes that have been given in blocks of 21 meals to about 30 students so far.

“The need is always there,” Katz said. “I work in the pantry, and I see the flow of students and Worcester State community members—it is real. People will say, ‘Thank you, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to eat later.”

Top photo: Josh Katz coordinates Thea’s Pantry, located in the Student Center, and open for any student, faculty, staff or alum to receive up to 35 pounds of food per week.

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