On-campus food pantry issues desperate call for donations during holiday season

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This holiday season is seeing an urgent need for food, clothing and toiletries for struggling Webster University students.

In the critical weeks leading to Thanksgiving, the shelves of the Webster Food Pantry, located at Webster Hall, sat mostly bare.

“The food just flies off the shelves such that it is nearly empty most of the time,” Anne Geraghty-Rathert, Webster law professor and founder of the Webster Food Pantry, said in an email to faculty. “I suspect that the financial situation of students is even worse this year than usual, and thus the need is that much greater.”

Photo by Morgan Smith. Webster University’s food pantry in Webster Hall Rm. 329, with shelves not as full as usual.

Geraghty-Rathert started the WILLOW (Women Initiate Legal Lifelines to Other Women) food pantry in her office on campus about seven years ago when a student approached her about not having enough food to feed her child. The student informed Geraghty-Rathert that she wouldn’t be able to stay in college if she continued to have difficulty providing for her child.

“Many students come from community colleges that already have a food pantry on campus,” Rathert said. “When they come to Webster, they think the same thing would be here and at any other college. And when they found out there wasn’t one here, they then became distressed.”

The Webster Food Pantry has since moved to Room 329 in Webster Hall. The pantry has an open-door policy, which means any student who is struggling with food insecurity or lacks essential items like toothpaste, soap, clothing or shoes can walk in and take what they need without having to sign their name or encounter anyone.

“When the pantry used to be in my office, people would come and leave their donations,” Rathert said. “The downside of that was that only the students who were comfortable and knew me would come in – that’s why we moved it.”

Food insecurity, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. A recent nationwide study from the nonpartisan health policy journal Health Affairs found that almost 40% of students age 18 to 24 experience food insecurity. The study cites many contributing factors, among them: the pandemic, inflation and the rising cost of college tuition.

Unfortunately, the need extends to food pantries across the St. Louis area, with distribution centers also experiencing shortages. Operation Food Search, a leading hunger-relief organization that provides food, nutrition awareness and other programs throughout the region, has seen lower donations than usual in 2022.

“Food donations have decreased this year and food prices have risen, so it has a compounding effect. In addition, supply chains continue to be disrupted,” Jocelyn Fundoukos, spokesperson for Operation Food Search, said. “As a food bank, Operation Food Search distributes food to nearly 200 agency partners (pantries, shelters and other sites). That means we’ve had less to distribute, while at the same time, our agencies are reporting an increase in need.”

Photo by Morgan Smith. Volunteers at Operation Food Search sorting through and packaging donations.

Operation Food Search provides food and services to approximately 200,000 people a month. With inflation, Fundoukos notes that low-income families and individuals are the hardest hit, with children especially vulnerable.

“About one in six children is at risk of going to be hungry at night,” Fundoukos said. “And OFS continues to work to distribute food people need today. But just as important, we work on long-term solutions to the problem of hunger, such as policy, advocacy and innovation.”

At the Webster Food Pantry, the urgency remains, and a desperate call has been issued campus-wide. Anyone who would like to donate can drop off items in Room 329 in Webster Hall.

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Lonnie Walton
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