Photography by Matthew Keough
Six years ago, Meg Bruening — an associate professor at ASU's College of Health Solutions and former faculty advisor for the Pitchfork Pantry — researched food insecurity among college students. What she found inspired the creation of the Downtown Phoenix campus' student-run food bank.
Bruening's survey asked participants if they were "worried about whether (their) food would run out" before earning the money to buy more or if the food they bought was lasting long enough. Although the sample size of students only consisted of 209 responses, 37% of participants reported experiencing food insecurity, which was defined and measured by the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Model.
She focused on ASU freshmen in her study, recognizing the stressors and effects of the transitional period of adulthood, especially while adjusting to a new environment and learning how to make decisions without assistance. As a result of these temporary but difficult adjustments, students faced higher risks of substance abuse, depression and financial and food insecurity. After noticing a concerning lack of academic research on this topic, Bruening was determined to make a change at the local level and established the first Pitchfork Pantry location.
Now, nutrition professor Maureen McCoy serves as the faculty advisor for the Pantry and continues combating food insecurity among students.
Spring and Summer 2020
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing and preventing food insecurity became more necessary than ever before, and members of the Pitchfork Pantry constantly prioritized their community's well-being — no matter the obstacle.
Like many members of the ASU community during the Spring 2020 semester, the Pitchfork Pantry faced numerous uncertainties about its plans for the future in the face of lockdowns and closures.
Lindsay Pacheco, president of the downtown Pantry and a junior in medical studies, said issues regarding space and foot traffic were some of the Pantry's recurring obstacles despite its attempts to expand across all campuses.
As the Pantry began expanding from downtown Phoenix to Tempe in February 2020, the organization opened at the Sonora dorms, ultimately providing more accessibility for students by being on a ground floor. However, this location lacked student engagement, proving to be too far from central campus.
Pacheco said the Pantry adapted by securing a spot in a small office at Interdisciplinary B next to the Memorial Union. "We'll take whatever space we can get," she said.
After constant adaptation to physical challenges and believing they were entering a new stage of growth, members of Pitchfork Pantry had to adapt to the most difficult obstacle yet in March 2020: COVID-19 closures. Within months, foot traffic shifted from a long-term goal into a pressing concern.
Once COVID-19 safety precautions became priorities and in-person classes paused in March, there was no "fully functioning Pantry" due to a lack of volunteers and accessibility, McCoy said. The Pantry was temporarily closed, but student leaders living nearby knew they had a mission to continue serving their community during a time of financial and health crises.
"We had always talked about doing pop-ups," McCoy said. "But it just never came to fruition."
As members of an organization built with the mission of addressing food insecurity and spreading nutrition education, student leaders and faculty advisers took time out of their daily schedules over the summer in 2020 to gather and deliver food packages to students and community members in need. McCoy said students commuted across the Valley during brief breaks in their own schedules to collect materials from local food banks and organize drive-thru events.
McCoy worked closely with ASU administration to permit the use of Lot 82 West as an accessible, drive-in distribution site on weekend mornings. She said the idea for pop-up distribution events served as an "on-campus substitute" to the normal Pantry during the organization's pause beginning in the spring. "We don't have a ton of resources, so we kind of make do with what we do have," she said.
The Pantry hosted their first pop-up event at Grace Community Church, about three miles south of the Tempe campus. But as the volunteers learned in months prior, distance from campus mattered when planning events, especially when some students had difficulties finding transportation or lived far from campus.
Transportation played an important role in volunteers' creation of Pantry pop-up events, and McCoy described how difficult the process can be for food banks in the Valley to add new stops to their food delivery route. This left students to commute between cities on their own time, especially when traveling continuously from Phoenix to Matthew's Crossing food bank in Chandler — the Pantry's main supplier for food items.
"The pop-up markets are very low-key for us," McCoy said. "We basically open up our trunks and have all the non-perishable food for the students."
Roxanna Lopez, president of the Tempe Pantry and a junior studying economics, understood the faculty's reasons for avoiding a busy Pantry — many faculty members working in Interdisciplinary B were at a high risk for complications from COVID-19 or immunocompromised. Student leaders felt uncertain about how to provide for students in the future after losing the original location at the Memorial Union, but knew safety came before anything else.
"We didn't know how the fall semester was going to work," Lopez said. "It's not unreasonable, some people just didn't want a ton of students."
Gabrielle Ducharme, a junior studying sports journalism, said she utilized the Pantry after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. During her isolation while waiting for her test results, she began to run low on groceries in her apartment. Her roommate, who was familiar with the Pantry, utilized the resource and brought home the necessities Ducharme needed.
"All this time in my room, I was going stir crazy, and then I walked out of my room," she said. "And I looked on the table and there was this entire stock of food and toilet paper."
Ducharme hadn't used the Pantry prior to her period of isolation, but after experiencing the benefits of the student-run resource, she realized firsthand the positive impact the organization could have on assisting students in need.
"It probably couldn't have come at a better time," she said. "It was a blessing in disguise for sure."
Regardless of all of this year's sudden changes and hardships, the Pitchfork Pantry remained resilient through their creative solutions and various campus partnerships, such as a partnership with the University tutoring centers and, most recently, ASU's American Indian Student Support Services. As the Pantry balanced managing foot traffic and fridge space, and maintaining student engagement, volunteers began to find new partnerships. As a result, new spaces in close proximity to students living on or near campus became available.
"We're so thankful for them, we've been able to solve a little bit of that space issue," Pacheco said. "Space is precious at ASU — it can be a little hard to get."
Adjusting and planning for future semesters
For now, Pacheco and McCoy recognize the Pitchfork Pantry won't end food insecurity, and Bruening's study acknowledges higher education's need for more accessible meal plans as a long-term solution. But in taking steps to prevent food insecurity, they prioritize awareness and education.
As student interest and involvement grows this year, McCoy said the Pantry plans to continue to find partnerships with other campus organizations, host virtual education sessions and regularly utilize more facilities such as refrigerated trucks for the pop-up events. But she recognized the conflict of minimizing foot traffic on campus due to space limitations.
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"I don't foresee the building at Tempe wanting us back in there," said McCoy.
Members of the Pantry hope to continue raising awareness about the topic of food insecurity throughout the spring semester. Additionally, they reflected on their current availability of items for students, noticing a lack of fresh produce and proper materials. According to McCoy, the organization hopes to expand their fridge facilities through campus partnerships in order to provide students with items that aren’t exclusive to nonperishable food and hygiene products.
"We know that we're one organization," Pacheco said. "And we're doing what we can to help and improve the little, tiny piece of the world we're in."
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