Carnegie Mellon is tackling stigma around food insecurity—one meal at a time

After the campus received a one-year grant to fight hunger, its Chartwells dining team stepped in to match the funds for a second year.
food distribution
Frozen meals being distributed on the CMU campus. | Photos courtesy of Chartwells

Since Chartwells Higher Ed came to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 2018, the dining team has helped fight food insecurity on campus in some form or fashion.

Dining staff have supported the campus food pantry, which is nearing five years in operation, by hosting a variety of teaching kitchens there and assisting in other ways, says Mike Tokarek, resident district manager for Chartwells at CMU.

So, when the school’s Office of Student Leadership, Involvement and Civic Engagement (SLICE) approached the Chartwells team to help apply for a grant to fight insecurity among students, they were eager to do so.

Chartwells was the office’s main partner when dreaming up what they could do to move the needle even further when it comes to food insecurity, says Elizabeth Vaughan, associate dean of student affairs and director of SLICE, which runs the food pantry. They considered fresh ways to leverage current resources and discussed gaps that they weren’t currently addressing.

“The grant allowed us to think more creatively aboutwhat are the ways that we can get food into the hands of students and what, specifically, on our campus are the reasons for food insecurity,” Vaughan says.

They ended up receiving the grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to the tune of nearly $60,000.

Though the grant funding ends with the 2023 calendar year, Chartwells agreed to extend the efforts it’s made possible by matching those funds in 2024. During that time, the team aims to come up with a long-term funding strategy to hopefully keep things running beyond that.

“We didn’t want to be offering something to students that we knew was meeting a need and then get amazing feedback about it and then not be able to continue those programs,” Vaughan says.

What it provides

The grant money is going toward multiple initiatives, one of which is the distribution of 6,000 frozen meals prepared by Chartwells staff.

Meals range from grilled chicken with potatoes and a vegetable to international dishes like chicken curry and chicken masala, Tokarek says. They are prepped at six locations across campus and given out at the food pantry.

The frozen meals are great because students can just pop them in the microwave, no planning required, Vaughan says, adding that “the nutritional value of what Chartwells is able to offer them is so much greater than any of the other quick meals that we provide in the pantry,” which include shelf-stable items like ramen, mac and cheese, and canned goods.

teaching kitchen
A teaching kitchen takes place at the CMU food pantry.

Several of the meal distributions took place during finals week, and the team obtained some survey feedback on how they were received.

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said the meals saved them time during the week, while 95% said the meals were moderately to greatly helpful in enabling them to give more time and energy to their academics, Vaughan says.

Chartwells is also assisting the pantry with purchasing bulk grocery items that are outside of its normal offerings, such as those integral to international dishes.

The typical items stocked tend toward a “Western PA diet,” Vaughan says, and Chartwells has helped them source condiments and seasonings, such as Chinese five spice, that suit the preferences of the pantry’s diverse shopper base. That way, shoppers can “create the meals the want to be eating,” she says.

In addition, grant funds have helped the team set aside 1,500 meal swipes in CMU’s all-you-care-to-eat facility for students dealing with “the highest level” of food insecurity, Vaughan says. Students who meet the criteria can use those swipes anonymously and join friends or faculty members for a meal.

They know that students value connection, community and being able to break bread with friends and colleagues, Vaughan says, adding that this “issue of belonging” had a big influence on how they wrote the grant proposal.

The scope of the issue

In running a food pantry, Vaughan says her team thinks about how to reduce stigma all the time.

The pantry serves students on a need-blind basis and does not track their income or reasons for needing assistance. At the end of the day, “[w]e … know that they cannot be successful in their academic pursuits if their basic needs aren’t addressed,” Vaughan says.

And those academic pursuits can compound the issue they’re trying to address.

“Food insecurity doesn’t always necessarily mean that [students] can’t afford it. Sometimes they can’t afford the time to go get it,” Tokarek says, adding that CMU is “a very scholarly campus and sometimes students just continue to study up through 11 o’clock and then they realize, ‘Oh, I didn’t eat,’ and nothing’s open. And that’s why we started this frozen meal program.”

Vaughan expresses a similar sentiment.

“People typically think about financial constraints as being a significant root cause of food insecurity and, of course, that unfortunately continues to be at play across the country and that is true for our students as well. But also for our students, when we launched the pantry, one of the things we heard is that there were other impacts beyond financial constraints," she says. "One being food deserts … and also something that’s very specific to our campus, and that’s scarcity of time.”



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