Hunger lessened when campus pantry is open

click to enlarge Hunger lessened when campus pantry is open
Campus Pantry/Submitted
The Campus Pantry provides food staples at no cost to anyone with a catcard. The pantry is located in the downstairs Sonora Room at the UA’s Student Union Memorial Center.

What used to be a social room is now serving a higher calling.

Located in the Sonora Room is evidently a needed service: The Campus Pantry. 

Anyone with a catcard can use the free service in the lowest level of the Student Union Memorial Center across from the Esports Arena. 

Student co-director RJ Reliford II knows firsthand the value of the pantry.

“For me, I was a (client),” he said. “I was struggling. I worked hard, manual labor jobs and I had three jobs, and I still couldn’t eat enough food because everything was so expensive. One of my friends told me about the pantry and when I heard about that I volunteered and became a (client) the same day.”

Since 2012, students, staff and faculty have supplemented their larders at the student-run Campus Pantry. It’s been an official ASUA program since 2016. No one will ask for identification, nor will clients be asked about income, as there are no restrictions. 

This is simply a place where a person with a catcard (anyone’s catcard) may get some food staples or personal care items.

Three days a week a line forms outside the Sonora Room and when the huge glass doors swing open, pantry staff begin the process of filling customers’ bags. There is a point system, so on one day, for example, clients may be able to spend four points and the cereal they are giving out is a half point. 

Then they move on to the next station where they are given a full point worth of something else. In this way, Yesenia Torres, the other co-director, can keep track of how much is given out, both for the sake of grant applications and so she knows how much to order for the next distribution day.

“The more people we have coming, because we report our data, the more money we can ask for, the more grants we can write, to hopefully get some permanent solutions for some issues we’re having here on campus,” Reliford said.

After all these years, it’s a well-oiled, if expensive, machine.

“We spend over $5,000 a week just on buying everything for the pantry space,” Reliford said. In addition, nothing is put on the shelves that is past its sell-by date, except some of the bread, which comes from a food bank.

Food comes from money donations, food drives and a yearly fundraiser.

When Reliford started, the number of clients was only in the hundreds. When the last spring semester ended, the pantry had served more than 1,300 people “a week,” Torres added.

“When I first started here (four years ago), we were serving about 500 people, 600 people,” Reliford said. “Then the pandemic hit. In that semester it went down, a lot of people were going home, but then a lot of the (clients) were the staff and faculty.”

In any given week, about 300 pantry clients will be university staff, Reliford said.

Around the Sonora Room are shelves filled with canned, boxed, bottled and bagged staples, such as oats, lentils, black beans, soup, beverages and rice. Torres buys a lot of rice.

“For example, I buy more than 300 bags of long grain white rice, at least,” she said. “That would probably only last me two days. That’s just the minimum of what I buy. Some weeks it really goes up.”

Clients can also get seasonings such as cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper blend and oregano. Much of what they have does not require refrigeration, but users can get fresh food, too, such as milk and eggs and produce, which is harvested from the student union’s rooftop vertical garden. 

Also available are frozen meals put together from Box of Hunger Meals, a program that supplies untouched, cooked food from the union’s catered events. The pantry has been getting those since 2019. It’s a popular program with clients.

“It’s a lot more convenient,” Torres said. “You know you’re going to have a long day, and you stop by. You might get supplemental groceries for tomorrow for you to make dinner, but for when you go home right away, it’s a meal that’s already ready. You just microwave it and it should be fine.”

Another set of shelves is filled with full size containers of hygiene items: toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant, body wash, and shampoo and conditioner. 

“I want to make sure they’re full size because I feel like with travel sizes and only spending money on that, I don’t want our users to feel like that’s only what they deserve,” said Torres, who does the purchasing.

There are also boxes of sanitary pads, tampons, and period cups, including an instructional graphic in case a client has never used that particular product. 

“It’s completely free,” Torres added. “Every time you come in you’re able to get one.”

Torres cannot buy toilet paper, but if they get donations, they give it out.

There is also an opportunity to access some social services here.

“We do long-term solutions, helping with SNAP benefits,” Reliford said. 

If more help is needed than the pantry can give, staff members have resources where they can refer clients. It’s just really all about filling in the gaps.

Campus Pantry is under an umbrella organization of the Basic Needs Center, and also includes the pantry’s neighbor, Campus Closet, which is open at the same time.

To donate, to find a wishlist or for information, visit campuspantry.arizona.edu.  

Campus Pantry

WHEN: 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays while school is in session. Summer hours vary.

WHERE: Sonora Room, downstairs, The University of Arizona Student Union Memorial Center, 1303 E. University Boulevard, Tucson

INFO: uofacampuspantry@gmail.com, or visit, campuspantry.arizona.edu

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