The sight of empty shelves stuck with Oluwanifemi “Nife” Shola-Dare after once touring the food pantry at Washington State University’s Pullman campus.
The pantry, operated out of an office suite at the Lighty Student Services Building, historically has relied on donations to stay stocked. It’s operated by the Office of Access and Opportunity, whose staffers juggle pantry management with the responsibilities of their actual jobs.
“I just imagined students who didn’t have anything to eat going there and (being) met with empty shelves,” Shola-Dare said.
Addressing food insecurity was a point of interest for Shola-Dare during her time at WSU. A student senator who graduated last month with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, Shola-Dare worked with the university’s Basic Needs Task Force and also attempted to film a video for students about the pantry and food insecurity. The effort was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To cap her senior year, Shola-Dare and fellow senator Jelani Christopher led efforts to enact a new $5 per semester fee for WSU Pullman undergraduate students to fund a position dedicated to the pantry and promoting food security initiatives. The new fee will be in place starting this fall.
Shola-Dare said the initiative will especially help minority, low-income and/or international students overcome a barrier many face with higher education.
“You’re spending all of this time trying to figure out higher education and then you’re probably also working a lot of hours so you can make money for yourself so you don’t even have time to focus on your academics,” she said. “Having access to food or just getting to eat should not be something you have to spend time worrying about, especially on campus.”
Getting the fee in place required a student referendum that was on the ballot during this year’s student government elections.
While student fee initiatives typically require 20% voter turnout to take effect, Christopher said senators changed the by-laws to reduce the turnout requirement to 3% if the university is in a predominantly online learning environment. Turnout for last year’s election, which took place before WSU moved mostly online due to COVID-19, was 13% , he said.
“If we had trouble getting 20% when we were still in person, we knew that we weren’t going to get 20% this year, but we knew that this was something that had to happen,” said Christopher, who is heading into his senior year. “Food insecurity is a problem that has always been around, but it’s also a problem that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
With an approximately 8% voter turnout, Christopher said, the referendum received around 70% approval from WSU Pullman student voters. The proposal then went to the Board of Regents, which approved the fee last month.
Christopher said senators believe $5 represents a simple ask of students. They decided on a semester basis for consistent revenue.
“Changing the bylaws made sense to me because it’s not too big of a fee and every student heard about the elections and had the opportunity to vote,” he said.
Lucila Loera, executive director of the WSU Office of Access and Opportunity, said she expects the fee to generate enough revenue to support the new position, student pantry workers and the ability for the pantry to serve student needs more proactively, such as with fresh foods or foods for different dietary restrictions.
Just what the position will look like has not been decided. While she has a draft outlining proposed responsibilities for the job, Loera said she intends to first review those with student groups before the position is finalized.
“When we talk to people that work with pantries or food insecurity, it’s also trying to minimize the myth or the reluctance to access the food pantry,” Loera said, “and that’s partly why we like to have more students and student employees do more of the outreach … to let students know that it exists.”
While Shola-Dare is moving to Boston to work as a research assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she said she’s talked with Loera about staying in the loop with how the initiative develops.
“For a while, I didn’t think it was going to pass because students are also angry because throughout the school year, we felt the administrators weren’t really making decisions from our perspective,” she said. “So, I didn’t really think that students would vote in support of it, but I’m glad they did. I guess people realized that this is something that we need on campus.”
The student fee is not the only big change coming for the food pantry.
The pantry is moving to the Compton Union Building in an effort to centralize services in one location, Loera said. She said the pantry has experienced in increase in users and new users during the pandemic and over the last few years.
Rosario’s Place in Wilson-Short Hall, coordinated through the WSU Women’s Center, also has a food bank. The pandemic has forced that and the Lighty food pantry to centralize through a curbside pickup service outside of the Lighty Student Services Building.
“That was happening regardless of a student mandatory fee,” Loera said. “But when that passed, it really pushed the notion that this is a great time to re-outfit the whole pantry, be able to do what we always talked about, having some dedicated personnel and some sustainability with the pantry in terms of resources and staff, and a great time to relocate it.”
Loera said a goal with the new pantry is to make it feel “much more like a grocery store or an open market.”
An advantage of working out of the union building , she said, is the potential for hours that are more flexible than the current 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday schedule. Loera said organizers also would like to keep delivery services in place that started with the pandemic.
The goal is to transition the pantry to the new space this summer.
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