Operating a food pantry during a pandemic

Photograph by Aaron Brodkey, University of Michigan Dining

As COVID-19 evolved into a pandemic, the Maize and Blue Cupboard, which helps students dealing with food insecurity at the University of Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., was busier than ever. International students who were unable to travel home became increasingly reliant on the Cupboard, which increased its weekly days of operation from three to seven in response to the growing demand. 

Operating during a pandemic brought a new series of challenges for food pantry’s team, but they have been able to successfully keep students stuck on campus safe and fed. 

A community effort 

While the coronavirus brought many changes to the Cupboard, its community focus remained the same. 

“This has always been a community-based partnership effort. Whether that was us working with the students or students working with the students,” says Jessica Thompson, Maize and Blue Cupboard program manager, adding that the food pantry has stayed heavily reliant on its community partners during the pandemic. 

After campus shut down in the spring, it was able to keep shelves stocked by sourcing food from residential dining, retail and catering, as well as the university’s student-run farm and outside organizations. 

The food is sent to the school’s South Quad Dining Center, where it is received by M Dining Campus Executive Chef Frank Turchan. He then organizes the items and controls their delivery schedule so the Cupboard isn’t overwhelmed with products at any one time. 

Maize and Blue

Photograph by Aaron Brodkey, University of Michigan Dining

While donations from all of the Cupboards’ partners have been essential to keeping it up and running, donations from the retail stores on campus have been especially helpful since those items are individually packaged. 

“We were able to benefit tremendously from snacks, juices, sodas, individual milks and all that kind of stuff, says Director of Student Engagement Keith Soster. “That has really helped sustain us over the last couple of months as we consolidate those operations.”

Adding new safety measures 

New safety protocols have been put in place inside the pantry to keep shoppers safe. The space is now separated into four different sections using tape on the floor, and only one shopper can be in each section at a time.

“It's very, very clear to the shoppers where they can be, and it's kind of a rotation,” Soster says. “When one person moves into the next section, then the next student is able to visit the section.”

Maize and Blue

Photograph by Aaron Brodkey, University of Michigan Dining

Under normal circumstances, the Maize and Blue Cupboard has campus organizations such as counseling and psychological services set up office hours to offer additional resources to student shoppers. That is no longer a possibility, says Thompson, but the team is working to still provide those resources and others on a virtual basis. 

“We are working on making sure our website can support some of that programming that we can’t physically do,” she says. 



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