‘No one should have to bend over backwards’: Combating food insecurity at Pitt


Image courtesy of Annie Ryan

There are a variety of resources for students experiencing food insecurity on campus, including the Plant2Plate Student Garden on Oakland Avenue.

By Betul Tuncer, Staff Writer

Food insecurity isn’t a far-off problem that simply means people don’t have enough food to eat, according to Annie Ryan. She said it’s a more complex issue that’s present on Pitt’s campus too.

“I define food insecurity as any level of instability in one’s access to healthy, sufficient, consistent nutrition, whether that be due to time, money, distance or any other sorts of constraints,” Ryan, plate chair of the Plant2Plate Student Garden and a junior environmental science major, said. “Food insecurity affects students at Pitt and across the country quite a bit.”

According to a report that the University’s Campus Basic Needs Committee released in March 2021, 43% of students at Pitt who filled out a campuswide survey experienced some form of basic need insecurity during the ongoing pandemic, and 18% of survey respondents reported facing low or very low levels of food insecurity in the past 30 days. The report said the issue of food insecurity is especially prevalent during the pandemic — leaving many Pitt students unable to access healthy and sustainable food.

Students face food insecurity in various ways, including worrying about running out of food, being unable to afford balanced meals and skipping meals or reducing the size of meals to save money, according to the report.

There are a variety of resources for students experiencing food insecurity on campus, including the Pitt Pantry, the Meal Assistance Program, Plant2Plate Garden and others.

Ryan said Plant2Plate allows students and community members to grow their own food in the organization’s garden on Oakland Avenue, as well as promote a “love for nature, urban gardening and food.” The food is distributed to volunteers or donated to the Pitt Pantry.

She said food insecurity on Pitt’s campus can look like buying only a bagel with butter from Einstein Bros. Bagels instead of an actual meal, or rationing meal swipes.

“Nutrition is so central to our well-being, so being food insecure can affect every part of your life from your mood to your academics to your social life,” Ryan said.
The Pitt Pantry is another group which works to provide healthy and accessible food options to students through its partnership with the Bellefield Presbyterian Church. Through the food items they receive from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, donations from local organizations and store purchases, students can place orders for food twice a week, said Teja Pulavarthi, vice president for food procurement.

Anita Bargaje, president of the Pitt Pantry and a senior computational biology major, said the Pantry gives students healthy food options to help combat food insecurity. 

“The Pitt Pantry aims to combat food insecurity by serving as an on-campus pantry for the distribution of food and household items,” Bargaje said. “In addition to our distribution operations, the Pitt Pantry continues to advocate for awareness regarding the existence of food insecurity and what our communities can do to help combat its prevalence.”

Ciara Stehley, the Pantry’s coordinator and sustainability program assistant at the Office of PittServes, said based on data provided from the Campus Basic Needs survey and from the observations of those who work at the Pitt Pantry, students are able to perform better in school when they are not facing food insecurity.

“Both national and anecdotal data show that, when students are able to meet their basic needs, including their nutritional needs,” Stehley said, “they are able to perform better at school and work, report improved physical and mental health and higher overall quality of life.”

Pulavarthi, a senior biology major, said the Pitt Pantry makes sure to provide food that accommodates dietary restrictions. Pulavarthi said students can use no-contact pickup for their orders or sign up for appointments to physically shop in the Pantry. Ryan worked on a proposed online ordering system for food pantries, similar to one currently in place at the Pitt Pantry, in a project-based class last year with Ward Allebach, an instructor of geology and environmental science.

Ryan said it’s important to engage in conversations about food accessibility in Oakland and on all college campuses so that students don’t have to struggle with it on top of school work.

“I think we are creating a culture that is redefining the expectations for food in college. It doesn’t have to all be frozen pizza and quick, unhealthy meals,” Ryan said. “Proper nutrition is so important and shouldn’t be a tradeoff to being a college student. We want to reinforce these ideas through increasing the Pitt community’s access to produce.”

Stehley said students who don’t have meal plans and are facing food insecurity due to an emergency can utilize the Meal Assistance Program as a resource.

“This program has two components — eligible students receive short-term assistance in the form of 15 meal passes, and all applicants receive a customized list of longer-term resource recommendations based on their unique situation,” Stehley said.

Rachel Vertucci, vice president of events, marketing and outreach for the Pitt Pantry executive board and a junior majoring in supply chain and global management, said students can receive assistance for food insecurity from other groups such as the Food Recovery Heroes, Share Excess and the Pitt Green Fund.

Students can also refer to the University Library System’s guide of campus- and community-based resources that provide food, housing, employment and health care assistance.

Ryan said food insecurity is common among college students and it’s important they know their experience is valid. She added that food insecurity has different degrees of severity and that students should use available resources no matter the level of severity.

“Something I think that is really important for students to know about food insecurity is that it’s so much more common than we think and it doesn’t have to be extreme for you to be deserving of help,” Ryan said. “It often gets lumped into what we accept as the ‘broke college student lifestyle,’ but it’s really important for people to know that no one should have to bend over backwards to find food, compromise nutrition or stress over where their next meal is coming from.”

This article has been updated to better reflect Ryan’s involvement with food pantry online ordering.