Building the food pantry of the future

The food pantry at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences incorporates engagement and education to create lasting change.
Photograph courtesy of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

When a campus survey revealed that more than 800 students and employees at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock, Ark., struggled to find their next meal, Director of Nutrition Services Tonya Johnson and her team leapt into action. Since then, they’ve converted a 1,600-square-foot space inside their distribution center into a food pantry that’s become more than just a place where people pick up a can of beans.

Pantry visitors, who are referred to as members, are encouraged to give back to the pantry by volunteering there, which could mean stocking shelves, packing meals or helping fellow members check out.

“You have ownership in the food pantry,” Johnson says. “You don't just come and receive a handout. You really are a true member, and you give feedback to the program as well.”

That sense of ownership and engagement represents the growing way in which food pantries are now working to create lifelong changes for those struggling with food insecurity.

Doing a lot with very little

While the pantry currently has more than 800 members and feeds more than 2,700 people weekly (including members’ families), it had much humbler beginnings when it opened in the summer of 2019.

Aside from a portion of a $100,000 internal grant from UAMS’ Chancellor’s Circle, the team didn’t have much money to get the pantry off the ground. So they partnered with their vendors for donations. Their beverage provider donated coolers, for example, and another supplier committed to donating fresh produce each week. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables have been a prominent part of the pantry’s offerings since its inception. During initial planning, Johnson visited other pantries in the area to gather best practices. After she noticed that many of them lacked healthier options, she knew that the pantry at UAMS had to be different.

“I really wanted to do a more healthful option and basically expose people to more fresh fruits and vegetables,” Johnson says. “I wanted to be able to offer more fresh foods and not just say, ‘Hey, here's some peanut butter crackers.’”

You have ownership in the food pantry. You don't just come and receive a handout. You really are a true member, and you give feedback to the program as well. —Tonya Johnson

The pantry also offers grab-and-go meals made up of of untouched, leftover food from UAMS’ retail locations and patient kitchen. Before opening the pantry, UAMS was donating its leftover food to a local food bank; however, the bank would only accept items in bulk, leaving many items that couldn’t be donated.

“I investigated and found some equipment where we could basically make our own little TV dinners,” Johnson says. “So we’ll blast chill [the leftovers] at the end of the meal period, get them down to temperature and then package them up, heat fill them, freeze them, and they're good for 30 days.”

The grab-and-go options change constantly depending on what’s on offer. “We have a lot of biscuits and gravy, eggs [and] sausage that we might make for breakfast, and for a lunch meal, we may have stuff like red beans and rice with a piece of cornbread,” she says. “Whatever we have left, we pair it together to make what would be a complete meal for someone.”

Engaging campus administration

The pantry also recruits administrators and faculty to assist with pantry costs and upkeep. Shortly after the pantry opened, an online donation page was set up, inviting the UAMS community to make donations. Faculty and administrators also have the option to donate through a payroll deduction.

Those looking for more hands-on ways to help can also prep meals for the pantry. Before the pantry officially opened, volunteers helped pack around 36,000 rice and bean mixtures that were given to its first members. These team-building exercises helped give leaders “a sense of ownership and a sense of that they were really contributing to the food pantry,” Johnson says. “I think by including them initially, then when we started asking for people to do payroll deductions to help fund the food pantry, they were more willing to give because they could actually get involved in the thing.”

UAMS members shopping in food pantryPhotograph courtesy of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Johnson’s hope is to do a team-building activity every six months to continue to engage administration and remind them that the food pantry remains a need on campus.

Changing habits

In line with Johnson’s goal to promote fresh produce, the pantry was stocked with cases of donated butternut squash when it first opened; however, Johnson noticed that not many members selected one.

“What I realized when I started talking with people is a lot of them had no idea even how to prepare the vegetables that we had over there,” she says.

So she came up with a solution: “I set up a cooking demo where I already had some of the butternut squash prepared, and then we had had some raw product and I would show people how to peel it, slice it, dice it, get it all prepped and then our cooking method.”

Members have responded so well to the demos that one is now held every time the pantry is open. (Pantry hours are 2-8 p.m. on Mondays and 12-6 p.m. on Thursdays.)

“It's really enhanced their diet,” Johnson says. “They’re eating a lot more produce than they would have never had before. A lot of people have told me, ‘I've never eaten kale before, but now that we've been exposed to it and know what to do with it, my family likes it and we're eating a lot more produce because of this pantry.’”



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