Pitt Pantry receives less shoppers, donations as food security plummets


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Pitt Pantry, a volunteer-run organization, is based out of Bellefield Presbyterian Church across from Litchfield Towers and has been serving healthy food to the Oakland community since 2015. Though food insecurity continues to grow and the Pantry board members have continually adjusted the schedules and plans for food distribution, their services are being utilized less this academic year.

By Maura Scrabis, Staff Writer

As a growing number of Americans continue to face food insecurity, local organizations like the Pitt Pantry are working to provide aid to those in need.

The volunteer-run organization, based out of Bellefield Presbyterian Church across from Litchfield Towers, has been serving healthy food to the Oakland community since 2015. While the pantry’s physical space is closed this spring and not accepting the help of volunteers, executive board members like Isabella Weiler, a senior molecular biology major, are behind the scenes keeping the pantry active.

“Unfortunately, as I became president during the year in which almost all in-person volunteering has ceased, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to expand upon my previous experiences,” Weiler said. “However, myself and the rest of the board are still working hard to make a difference in a time where it is more important than ever.”

Though food insecurity continues to grow and the Pantry board members have continually adjusted the schedules and plans for food distribution, their services are being utilized less this academic year.

According to Student Affairs spokesperson Janine Fisher, the pantry served between 35 and 45 shoppers per month throughout the fall semester — a 35% decrease from the previous year.

Weiler said that while they do not know for certain the reason behind the drop in the number of shoppers, they believe it is likely related to the fact that there were less students on campus last semester.

Due to the many COVID-related changes, the pantry’s leaders are connecting with shoppers in other ways. Weiler said the organization is continuing to work with Pitt students no matter where they are living.

“We have also been working with students who live outside of Oakland to find pantries and other food distributions in their neighborhoods so that they don’t need to come to campus just to get food while they are participating in classes online,” Weiler said.

Anita Bargaje, the vice president of events, marketing and outreach, assists the pantry by designing social media posts to keep shoppers updated and interested. Bargaje, a junior computational biology major, said the pantry’s executive board is working to reach a larger audience by expanding their modes of communication, especially in the forms of emails, website updates and social media posts.

“Regarding staying connected with the student body and surrounding community members, we are rolling out a variety of new, virtual engagement opportunities for both shoppers and volunteers this semester and will be releasing more information regarding these upcoming events and meetings soon,” Bargaje said.

Bargaje typically spends 3 to 4 hours each week designing marketing materials, but said her hours fluctuate depending on upcoming events.

Events held by the pantry have varied this school year, with the largest being a wide-scale community distribution held in October through a partnership with other University organizations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local farmers.

Besides a drop in the number of shoppers, Fisher said they have also received fewer food donations in the past year. Typically, the pantry receives donations from a “wide variety of sources,” but this year coordinators purchased a “majority” of their food from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

“Thanks to grant funding from the City of Pittsburgh and various foundations, we haven’t really had any issues keeping up with food supply,” Fisher said.

To meet the safety requirements of the City and the Pitt community, the pantry has shifted to a fully no-contact process of distribution.

When the University moved classes online back in March, the Pantry began to operate on limited hours. Walk-in hours were offered, and the staff enforced social distancing guidelines and increased sanitation efforts. The Pantry switched to prepackaged bag delivery, and items were transported through a dropoff in Towers lobby starting March 20.

Currently, the pantry offers their prepackaged boxes on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. To reserve a bag, shoppers must sign up online ahead of time. Applications are due every Tuesday by midnight.

“Shoppers fill out an online form that includes demographic questions, dietary restrictions and options for their pick-up time, then our staff pack their non-perishable food and hygiene items into a box, labeled with a unique number, and set it out during the pick-up time that the shopper selects,” Fisher said.

In contrast, advanced choice produce days are held on a first come, first served basis on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the church’s back parking area. According to the pantry’s site, shoppers are not required to sign up for produce days and because of this, Fisher said the pantry estimates that the number of students taking advantage of these days is likely similar to previous semesters.

Despite having to juggle recent adjustments, executive board members are choosing to focus on the greater impact the pantry has made over the years.

Bargaje said she thinks of her time with the pantry fondly, and she has been able to interact with a “diverse range” of people in the Pitt community.

“During these three years, I’ve been able to interact with a multitude of grateful customers and form meaningful connections with the other pantry workers,” Bargaje said. “Every shift was rewarding in that I got to meet new faces and learn more about how hunger is perpetuated in the community and how best to diminish it.”

Weiler, the current president, said she also remembers the interactions she used to have with shoppers.

“My absolute favorite part would be successfully making a shopper laugh, in any way, shape or form — I was always trying to make them feel more comfortable in the midst of an interpersonal dynamic that could be intimidating or unpleasant if not managed well,” Weiler said. “I know all too well that it is so, so difficult to reach out for help when you need it –— and if the first time you do so results in anything less than positive, it becomes even harder to do it again.”

This idea is one of the main reasons Pitt community members and volunteers continue to support the pantry.

“Our measure of success for the Pitt Pantry, from the beginning, has been ‘Are we a welcoming space that supports all members of the Pitt community who may be experiencing food insecurity?’” Fisher said. 

Bargaje said the Pantry continues to strive to reach any Pitt community member in need, regardless of the circumstances.

“Our goal is that all members of the Pitt community are aware of the resources the Pantry can provide and feel they can safely utilize those resources,” Bargaje said.

The best resource for up-to-date information on Pitt Pantry’s current operating procedure is their website, pi.tt/pittpantry. Students can also reach out with questions or for information by emailing [email protected].