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Going mobile: Fighting food insecurity during COVID-19

The University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s Stocked & Reddie food pantry has hit the road to help provide food and supplies.
Photograph courtesy of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

While the COVID-19 pandemic continued to grow throughout the country, a student and employee health doctor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock, Ark., heard from many quarantined students and staff members who were having a hard time receiving food, medication and other essential personal products—especially at the school’s satellite campuses. In response, she worked with UAMS community leaders to find a way to help those who were struggling. 

“That is where the idea for Stocked & Reddie Plus came to life,” says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Tonya Johnson. “UAMS has over 11,000 employees across the state of Arkansas. We were made aware that employees and students in our regional programs were some of the ones with the greatest need.”

A mobile version of UAMS’s food pantry, Stocked & Reddie, is now helping provide food and other essentials, such as cleaning supplies, to UAMS students and employees under quarantine around the state. 

Relying on volunteers  

Similar to the original food pantry, Stocked & Reddie Plus relies on others in the community to operate. To get the program started, Johnson and her team reached out to the UAMS IT department, which helped them create electronic forms to identify pantry recipients’ needs. 

Employees who are under quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19 receive a form that asks whether they have enough food and supplies in their homes to last a week. If they answer “No,” they receive an additional Stocked & Reddie form to help identify their specific needs. Once the form is completed, pantry volunteers give them a call to verify their needs and then begin assembling meal boxes to be delivered to recipients.

Using two vans donated by UAMS’s vehicle manager, mobile pantry volunteers make deliveries to local campus recipients on Tuesdays and Thursdays and to regional program campuses on Wednesday and Fridays. The mobile pantry has also expanded to include another local hospital. 

“Arkansas Children’s Hospital reached out to us to assist with their employees on quarantine,” Johnson says. “They did not have an established pantry on campus and needed a means to assist their staff in need. ... Rural hospitals near our regional campuses are using food and supply boxes to assist their employees as well. It has really grown to a statewide assistance program.”  

Volunteers, who were sourced using an online sign-up program,use personal protective equipment such as gloves, hand sanitizer and face masks, and follow strict protocol to keep themselves and food pantry recipients safe. 

“We have very specific safety instructions that the driver goes over with the recipient explaining that the driver will place the box on the porch, and then once the driver leaves, the recipient can retrieve the supplies,” Johnson says. “We do not want to expose any of our volunteers.”     

Growing where there is a need 

The delivered boxes can supply an entire week’s worth of meals for everyone in the household, and include items such as spaghetti and sauce, bread, eggs, cereal, peanut butter and jelly, pancake mix, meat, rice and canned vegetables. 

Even with COVID-19 putting pressure on supply chains and finances, the pantry has had no problems obtaining donated food and supplies so far, Johnson says.

“We are actually able to obtain more donations from our vendors at this time due to decreased purchasing from restaurants,” she says. “I do feel that will decline soon with the vendors ordering less products. Fortunately, we have received a lot of monetary support from groups, organizations and individuals who have heard what we are doing and want to help.” 

The surge in donations has allowed the pantry to expand its offerings to include pet and baby care items, cleaning supplies, and personal and feminine hygiene items. 

By the third week of the program, Stocked & Reddie Plus has helped more than 5,000 people throughout the state. Johnson says she’s also seen an increase in visitors to the traditional pantry, which continues to run on Mondays, and is hoping to expand the mobile pantry to include recipients who may be working longer shifts and are struggling to make the time to shop for food and other essential items. 

“We plan to run this as long as there is a need,” she says. “We will grow and expand as the need arrives.” 

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