Western Provides Student Food Access with Weekly Food Pantry Pop-Up at Viking Commons 

by Jon Foster
Office of University Communications intern

With the closure of Western’s campus came a myriad of challenges and problems for the campus community.  

One major issue that affects nearly one-fourth of Western students is food insecurity, according to the 2017 WELS Second Year Survey results. A pop-up food pantry, created in collaboration with the Office of Student Life, Student Representation and Governance, Dining Services, and the Outback Farm, has been created to provide meal kits for students experiencing food insecurity. 

The pop-up food pantry is hosted from noon to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays at the entrance of Viking Commons every week until June 10. Western students are able to walk through and pick up a meal kit after they show their Western ID. The food pantry is zero-contact, which means students only need to walk to one of the tables, grab a bag and move on. The meal-kits are limited to one per student. 

Food pantries aren’t a new thing to Western’s campus. During a normal quarter where students and faculty have access to Western’s campus and buildings, there are food pantries in Birnam Wood, Fairhaven College, the WHOLE Food Pantry at the Viking Union, and in some departments around campus. There are food access resources like Swipe Out Hunger and gift card options for groceries. The Outback Farm is also available to students. 

One issue with the Swipe Out Hunger or the grocery gift card resource is that it can impact a student’s financial aid package if they use them. Terri Kempton, the Outback Farm manager, said this was one of main reasons why she wanted to start the pop-up food pantry. 

Kempton said the Outback Farm is there to provide food for the community. The produce grown on the farm is harvested through volunteers that come in for work parties and is then distributed to volunteers, students, and also through WHOLE, but the harvest process has been disrupted by the pandemic. 

“Now we can’t have volunteer work parties and very few students are able to use the farm,” Kempton said. “All of the buildings on campus are locked so no one has access to the food pantries. When this all happened, a lot of people, including myself, were very concerned about what that meant for our food insecure students.” 

The Outback set up their first pop-up food pantry on March 22 at Fairhaven College. The pop-up was stocked with produce from the Outback Farm and Trader Joe’s surplus, and had anything from cage-free eggs to bread and fresh produce. 

“We unloaded the stuff at Fairhaven College and invited people to come,” Kempton said. “The food was gone within four hours, which indicated to us there is a huge need for access to food.” 

After the first pop-up pantry, Kempton realized they needed to create a better system for students to access the food in a low risk setting. She reached out to Karen Deysher, the coordinator for Student Advocacy and Identity Resource Center at Western, and Leti Romo, the assistant director for Student Representation and Governance, to establish a working group that focuses on food accessibility. Deysher and Romo have both worked on food pantry issues previously on Western’s campus. 

“It’s very easy to feel like we are working independently on an issue,” Kempton said. “But, unless we take a step back and look at the situation, we miss the opportunity to work together. We have come together in a working group to address food insecurity in our student population in a bigger, broader way.” 

The working group includes Christian Urcia, the assistant director of Residence Life at Western, as well as Steven Erbe, Western’s executive chef, and Stephen Wadsworth from Dining Services. For everyone involved, food access and security are important issues.  

Urcia was instrumental in setting up the Swipe Out Hunger program at Western and he helped start the food pantry and meal kits at Birnam Wood. Deysher and Romo are part of WHOLE, which run food pantries and provide food access resources at Western. 

For Urcia, getting the pop-up food pantry was a grassroots effort. It involved bringing together people from all over Western’s campus centered around the goal of providing food for students during a time where their normal resources are inaccessible.  

“All of this has come from the work of other people that work for or have previously worked at Western,” Urcia said. “It is a joint effort. Just because there are a few people working on the food pantry, there are many more people that are here to help with combating food insecurity.” 

Erbe and Wadsworth were instrumental in providing the food and work necessary to supply the pop-up pantry, Kempton said. The partnership has enabled the pop-up pantry to provide meal-kits that have enough food to last for one or more meals.  

We have come together in a working group to address food insecurity in our student population in a bigger, broader way.

“Aramark and Western Dining Services purchased the food on behalf of the group,” Wadsworth said. “Leti Romo and her team design the meal kits. We put them together and assisted with the other volunteer members to distribute them.” 

Romo said the meal kits can be tailored to meet different dietary needs and restrictions. If a student is vegetarian or vegan, they can omit items to ensure students are getting what is useful for them. Students are also able to get fresh produce provided by the Outback Farm. 

“At the end of the day, we need food,” Deysher said. “There are so many barriers for students to access food, especially during a pandemic and we just want them to be able to access it. We are humans, we deserve food.” 

The pop-up food pantry was designed to reduce as many of the barriers to food access as possible for students. If students are unable to make it during the two-hour window, they can arrange a time to come by and pick up a meal kit by emailing Deysher at karen.deysher@wwu.edu

“I hope that we are clear that we have resources for students,” Romo said. “If we need to get more, we will get more. If students are in need, whatever that is, they should utilize the pop up and the gift cards. Now is not the time to be modest. If you are in need, you are in need -- and should utilize these resources.” 

Friday, May 29, 2020 - 10:17am
WWU student Libby Taylor-Manning hands out free plants from the Outback Farm at the food pantry as part of her senior project.

WWU student Libby Taylor-Manning hands out free plants from the Outback Farm at the food pantry as part of her senior project. WWU photo/Hannah Gordon-Kirk