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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is opening a new on-campus pantry called the Big Orange Pantry. With a mission of providing emergency food assistance and other essentials for members of the university community, the Big Orange Pantry is accessible to students, faculty, and staff.

Colleges and departments across campus as well as alumni are collaborating to bring the Big Orange Pantry to fruition to best support those in the UT community who are experiencing hunger.

Professor Betsy Anderson Steeves with UT’s Department of Nutrition serves as a campus leader on the topic and emphasizes that college students in particular are a major group struggling with food insecurity.

“As a society, there are cultural norms we hold around college students such as eating ramen noodles and being broke, but that frame of thought has some really harmful effects,” Anderson Steeves said. “College food insecurity affects physical and mental health, which may impact degree completion rates, and may prevent students from fully engaging in all of the opportunities we want them to have while they’re here. Ideally, the Big Orange Pantry can provide the support students and any users need to be healthy and successful.”

About the Pantry

Located on the ground floor of Greve Hall, Big Orange Pantry will open on Wednesday, November 4. Hours this fall will be from 2 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, with online ordering and in-store pickup to maintain social distancing. Users of the pantry can receive food by filling out an online form and providing general demographic information and dietary restrictions. Users can start requesting food on Friday, October 30. In the spring, the pantry will expand to operating four days a week and by private appointment.

Partnerships between units across campus are making the pantry more than just a place to receive food during a crisis situation. The pantry aims to provide holistic support to its users while acknowledging that food insecurity is often a chronic condition. Recent trends show that people have started to use food pantries more regularly, so Big Orange Pantry organizers set out to provide services that address both immediate and long-term needs.

Abigail Brumfield
Abigail Brumfield, interim assistant director for the Office of the Dean of Students

“We want the pantry to be a place where people don’t feel stigma but feel like it’s a shopping experience instead,” said Abigail Brumfield, interim assistant director in the Office of the Dean of Students. Brumfield played a significant role in developing partnerships and coordinating the launch of the pantry. “The pantry is built on client choice, and I’m excited because we have content experts from across campus working together.”

Students and faculty from the Department of Nutrition are providing nutritional resources and personalized recipes. The Big Orange Pantry staff are offering consultations to discuss campus and community resources and navigating SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). UT’s Culinary Institute is looking at developing a food recovery initiative to create low-waste prepackaged meals that can be donated to the pantry as grab-and-go options for users who might not have easy access to a kitchen. And the Haslam College of Business is planning to help with the logistics of stocking the pantry, providing expertise and resources from the Department of Supply Chain Management.

Problem-Solving Together

Over the past few years, the Office of the Dean of Students has elevated its involvement in hunger and food insecurity issues, from hosting the annual Hunger and Homelessness Summit to offering a short-term meal assistance program and the student emergency fund. Big Orange Pantry is another piece in a larger push to eradicate food insecurity at UT.

“Students, particularly in a COVID-19 environment, are navigating their adjustment to a virtual environment, managing coursework and general stressors that often accompany attending college,” said Shea Kidd Houze, associate vice chancellor for student life and dean of students. “When basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter are not met, it is difficult to focus on anything else. The creation of the pantry will hopefully alleviate concerns of students wondering where they will access their next meal.”

Antihunger groups, faculty experts, and student advocates on campus have been working together to meet this need with increased drive after a recent study revealed that one in three students at UT are food insecure. While this percentage is high, Anderson Steeves notes that many colleges and universities across the US are experiencing similar rates.

Betsy Anderson Steeves
Betsy Anderson Steeves, professor in UT’s Department of Nutrition

“We’re in the same boat as a lot of other institutions, but what’s really exciting to see is the response of the campus community—from faculty, staff, and alumni—to rally around our students and help address this issue once we had these hard numbers,” Anderson Steeves said. “In this semester where I feel like there are so many things that are less than ideal, whenever I talk with different groups about the pantry it always lifts me up because everyone is constantly asking, ‘How can I help? How can I get involved?’ and that’s so inspiring.”

Big Orange Pantry is the result of their collaborative action and a generous gift from alumni Donnie Smith (’80) and Terry Smith (’80). An animal science program graduate and former president and CEO of Tyson Foods, Donnie Smith is a member of UT’s Board of Trustees. Both he and his wife, education graduate Terry Smith, are highly active philanthropists in the area of hunger.

“It’s really hard to ace a math test when you’ve got an empty stomach,” Donnie Smith said. “Our heart is with that kid who needs that bit of extra help to do well in school and not get discouraged.”

He believes that stigma surrounding food insecurity leads to lower graduation rates because hungry students may give up and choose to return home for a job and steady paycheck. Having experienced food insecurity himself in college, Smith desired to support future students who might be struggling with the same need.

“I wanted to do something about it because I can,” Smith said. “If you can, you should, and giving UT a boost can lead to people flocking around the idea of helping these kids have food so they can do well in school. We’re Volunteers, and so we’re going to volunteer to solve this problem.”

Looking to the Future

UT has various campus resources already in place to assist students dealing with food insecurity, such as Big Orange Meal Share and the Grow Lab. There’s also a separate pantry called Smokey’s Pantry, located at the Tyson House Campus Ministry just off UT’s campus. While Big Orange Pantry specifically aims to serve UT community members, Smokey’s Pantry serves the general public as well. The two pantries will partner, staggering their hours to ensure that anyone in need has access to food every weekday. Moving forward, Big Orange Pantry will hopefully become a campus location where users can feel welcomed and connect more easily with these other resources.

Two student advocates, Ashlyn Anderson and Mikayla Prince, share this hope. Both were heavily involved in creating the pantry and serve on the Student Basic Needs Coalition, a student advocacy group committed to ensuring student access to essentials like food, housing, and health services. Anderson, a junior from Franklin, Tennessee, studying food security and public health nutrition, is most excited to see the pantry serve as a basic needs hub.

“The pantry has an enormous amount of potential for unifying the antihunger movement at UT. I envision it being completely destigmatized and normalized for use at any time,” Anderson said. “Getting food support shouldn’t be something students feel alienated about, and this will be available as they work hard to obtain higher education.”

Prince, also from Franklin and a senior studying sociology, hopes the pantry will serve as a catalyst for change. “The pantry is a great first step toward creating a more equitable and sustainable food system on campus,” she said. “My hope is that people won’t have to rely on a food pantry someday.”

For more information on Big Orange Pantry and other support services, visit the Office of the Dean of Students website. If you would like to donate, the Big Orange Pantry is also accepting monetary donations.

CONTACT:

Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, msteph44@utk.edu)