Varsha Vasudevan, Staff Writer
Little Ram Pantries, a pilot program created to study food insecurity among students on campus, has expanded with new locations on VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV campuses, according to the program’s founder and environment science professor John Jones.
The expansion into the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Medical Education Center at MCV follows the success of the initial Little Ram Pantries, which were installed around the Monroe Park Campus in October 2021, according to a previous report from The Commonwealth Times.
The new locations at MCV also expands Little Ram Pantries’ “service area,” according to Jones. He said the expansion was initially planned for later in the semester, but was accelerated following requests from faculty and staff from MCV to open the pantries there as well.
“A few faculty, mostly administrators, over at MCV read one of your [The Commonwealth Times] earlier stories, and contacted me, and actually said, you know, ‘hey, could you expand to MCV?’” Jones said. “I said, ‘okay yeah, I’ll do my best to get it there as soon as possible.’”
Jones said Little Ram Pantries is a “quasi-experiment” conducted to examine the reality of food insecurity among the student population.
“This was an idea I had about two years ago to try to help reduce the problem for students at VCU, especially during COVID[-19],” Jones said.
VCU students experience food insecurity at an average rate of 35%, according to research conducted by VCU School of Social Work professor Youngmi Kim, Ph.D., prior to the Little Ram Pantry initiative.
In Kim’s study, only about half of the 21 focus groups were aware of Ram Pantry, which is the central student food pantry on campus, according to the VCU Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success website. The Ram Pantry includes perishable and nonperishable items, unlike the Little Ram Pantries, and was established in 2014.
Before the expansion of the Little Ram Pantries, there were over 1,000 total interactions recorded since the launch in October 2021, averaging around 75 interactions per week.These numbers do not account for Little Ram Pantries’ newest locations, according to Jones.
To measure engagement, Jones said each box has magnetic sensors which detect whenever the pantry doors have been opened and closed, according to Jones.
“Those are the numbers basically as we were getting ready to launch the expansion,” Jones said. “I mean, we’ve more than doubled since the recent expansion.”
Associate director of the Virginia Center on Aging Dr. Leland “Bert” Waters is a contributor to Jones’ ongoing study on food insecurity in college students. According to Waters, their research indicates that graduate students experience more food insecurity than undergraduates, warranting the expansion of Little Ram Pantries to the MCV campus.
“In part, we believe that’s because as an undergraduate student, you get more support from your family members, and as a graduate student, you’re more responsible for your own income,” Waters said.
Little Ram Pantries student coordinator Reyna Vazquez-Miller said the program was a helpful initiative, especially since VCU has a “huge issue” with food insecurity.
Vazquez-Miller said being able to see more physical locations of the Little Ram Pantries on campus might help advertise the program more and reduce the stigma around receiving help for food insecurity.
Vazquez-Miller said the lack of options in the VCU meal plan, not having access to convenient transportation like cars and the shortage of nearby grocery stores were risk factors for food insecurity among college students.
“It just leaves students really vulnerable to get fresh produce, baked goods, things that you can’t really get with your meal plan, since meal plan food is like all prepared food,” Vazquez-Miller said. “It definitely is a problem on our campus.”
Environmental science professor and Little Ram Pantries founder John Jones said he was exploring opportunities for a “student design group” to remodel the pantries to have a more “permanent design.” The redesigns may include new shelving units and storage spaces for flyers and infographics, according to Jones.
Jones said Little Ram Pantries also plan to provide college student cookbooks, which are available through the VCU School of Business, and other “food tangential resources” for students.
In December 2021, Jones said he was also working on a partnership with Feed More, a food bank in central Virginia, to receive food for the pantries at a lower cost, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times. Jones said the efforts for a partnership are ongoing in a recent interview.
“A number of senior officials at the university are investigating that and I have turned it over to them,” Jones said. “I think that they’re continuing to make progress and hopefully there’ll be good news on that soon.”
Jones said his hope was that as the research on food insecurity through Little Ram Pantries concludes, the initiative would be passed onto VCU Division of Student Affairs if proven impactful.
“One way or the other, we’re going to try to keep it going through the end of next school year,” Jones said. “After that, it’s quite unknown because it depends upon grant money coming in.”
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