November 23, 2020

The W Pantry adapts services, expands support during pandemic

As much of the world has changed dramatically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Wayne State University’s W Food Pantry has adapted on the fly to continue safely serving students in need, providing not only free access to nutritious food and basic necessities, but also free technology resources.

In addressing food insecurity, The W is a provider of essential services and has remained open throughout the pandemic, with revised hours, increased sanitation, and additional protocols for the health and safety of clients and student workers. The pantry has also become a source of important resources during the pandemic, providing a centralized, safe location for WSU to distribute face coverings and — with the help of Computing and Information Technology – loan various free tools to support students with remote learning, including Chromebooks, hotspots, microphones, headphones, webcams, and graphing and finance calculators. With the support of the Student Senate, The W will also soon have noise-canceling headphones with microphones available for loan.

Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 36% of college students nationwide were impacted by food insecurity, which is defined as having a lack of secure, consistent access to nutritious and affordable food. While research continues, Wayne State estimates that as many as 10,000 students are food insecure. The pandemic, which has resulted in an increased reliance on technology to support remote learning, has presented a new and changing set of challenges.

“We know that to be successful, our students must first have their basic needs met. Their needs have changed in the face of this pandemic, and we’ve changed, too,” said Rainesha Williams-Fox, coordinator of student life wellness. “While remote learning has resulted in fewer students physically on campus, we still provide nutritious food and essential hygiene products, and now we also distribute school supplies and technology.”

The W has adjusted its hours and volunteer staffing to allow for social distancing and increased sanitation measures; the pantry is currently open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with Fridays reserved for technology pickups only. Clients have been asked to complete an intake form in advance to allow volunteers to prepare their order for contact-free pickup. Further, in recognition that many students with a meal plan do not use all of their guest meal swipes, the pantry has also partnered with Housing and Dining to offer the Warrior Meal Share program, in which currently enrolled students can “donate” up to three of their guest meal swipes per semester. In the spirit of giving, The W has also continued its tradition of providing Thanksgiving baskets — complete with turkey, macaroni and cheese, greens, potatoes and stuffing — to students in need prior to the holiday.

Williams-Fox says that the pantry has drawn on collaborative supportive and shared learning within the College and University Pantries (CUP) research organization to adapt during the pandemic. The W recently partnered with CUP to virtually host its annual College Campus Food Pantry Summit, in which participants shared information and ideas about changing client needs, increased safety protocols, and future directions.

The W — a collaborative effort led by the Office of the Provost and the Dean of Students Office with support from Housing and Residential Life — was made possible by the McGregor Fund through a 2016 university-wide grant designed to address the needs of homeless or otherwise vulnerable students. Since its founding in 2017, the W has developed partnerships with Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, Forgotten Harvest, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which provides access to caseworkers who are available to consult virtually with students and provide information and assistance about state and federal benefits, including the Supplemental Food Assistance Program, emergency relief, childcare assistance, and more.

“This is a challenging time for us all, and although we operate very different pantries, this group always finds new ways to learn from one another to benefit our students,” said Williams-Fox. “The pandemic has reinforced our commitment to serving students and reminded us that so many of our neighbors and peers face temporary or long-term food insecurity.”

To learn more about The W, visit thew.wayne.edu.