Doing good together: Durham Tech food pantry fosters community

Volunteers at the Durham Tech Campus Harvest Food Pantry receive directions on how to sort and process donations. The food pantry serves between 500 and 600 students and gives out about 25,000 pounds of food each year. (Staff photo by Korie Dean)

Erin Riney always knew that some of her students at Durham Technical Community College struggled with food insecurity.

But eight years ago, when the college’s Student Government Association hosted a giveaway with 50 free food bags and ran out in less than 10 minutes, she knew it was a more pressing issue than she had imagined.

Riney, who serves as Durham Tech’s director of student engagement, wanted to do something about it. With the help of some colleagues and an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) member, Riney made a proposal for an on-campus food pantry. The program was piloted in summer 2012.

Miguel Villatoro places cans of beans on a shelf at the food pantry. Villatoro moved to Durham from Honduras three years ago and shopped at the food pantry weekly for about a year. Now, he gives back and volunteers with his wife, Zuly, every week. (Staff photo by Korie Dean)

“It started with me planting too many peppers in my garden, and I brought in extra vegetables, and it all went super fast,” Riney said. “So, we decided we needed something a little more concrete.”

That “something” started as one shelf in Riney’s office. Then, it expanded to a storage closet.

Now, eight years later, the Campus Harvest Food Pantry occupies about 500 square feet in the Phillips Building at Durham Tech’s main campus on East Lawson Street. It serves 500 to 600 students per year.

The pantry provides nonperishable and fresh food items, as well as hygiene products, like toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“That’s really big, because things like razors and deodorant can get pretty expensive,” Riney said. “They can be hard to afford if you can’t afford food.”

‘We’ve got to fill the shelves’

The pantry is housed within the school’s Center for College and Community Service, which connects students, faculty and staff with service opportunities on campus and in the Durham community.

The pantry, which relies mostly on donations, is open Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. for snacks and full-service grocery needs. Smaller snacks, such as granola bars and fruit, are also available Monday through Thursday. Any person with a valid Durham Tech ID, student or staff, is eligible to use the pantry.

Zariyah Thomas, a student at Durham Tech, processes and records a can of food that has been donated to the pantry. Thomas’s class volunteered at the pantry on Feb. 18. Thomas was responsible for logging the type and weight of each food item. (Staff photo by Korie Dean)

When donations to the pantry run low, Riney said campus community members often step up and host food drives. Riney and her coworkers at the pantry also fill the shelves by shopping at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, where they can buy food at a rate of 19 cents per pound.

“Sometimes shopping retail isn’t the most cost effective, but we’ve got to fill the shelves,” Riney said.

The pantry uses a shopping model, Riney said, so that shoppers are able to take food best suited for them and their families. Private shopping is also available for shoppers with larger families or specific dietary needs.

“Some of our folks are in a family of eight or more, so we let them shop double through private shopping [to get enough food],” Riney said. “Some people have certain dietary restrictions and they need longer in the pantry to shop.”

‘We can do good together’

Initially, Riney and her colleagues were worried about the stigma that students might feel about using a food pantry in front of their peers. But she said students have embraced the pantry and for the most part, they use it without fear of judgment.

“That has not really been as big of an issue here for us as it has been for other schools,” Riney said. “Some colleges don’t want to locate their pantry right in the middle of campus. Then others put it right in the middle campus with glass walls so people can see it and use it. We have a line winding down the hall every Wednesday, which is the first pantry day of the week. Sometimes it’s 10 people deep and they don’t care who sees them.”

The pantry’s volunteers play a large role in keeping the shelves organized and ready for shoppers each week.

Miguel and Zuly Villatoro, who moved to Durham from Honduras about three years ago, shopped at the pantry weekly when they first moved to the U.S. and started classes at Durham Tech. Now, they give back to the pantry by volunteering regularly.

Zuly Villatoro said one of her favorite parts about volunteering is learning about the people and organizations that donate food to the pantry.

“It’s the most beautiful experience because you can help another person,” Miguel Villatoro said. “I like this pantry because every person is very kind, very happy, very friendly. This is a good experience because we can do good together.”

Jacqui Anwar organizes the snack shelf at the Campus Harvest Food Pantry. All students and staff with a valid Durham Tech ID can shop from the snack shelves Monday through Thursday, while grocery shopping is limited to Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. (Staff photo by Korie Dean)

 ‘A very tangible way to assist our students’

In addition to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, Riney said the food pantry also partners with local organizations, like the Briggs Avenue Community Garden and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

“Those are big companies, and they take the chance to help out students,” Zuly Villatoro said.

Without the help of those organizations, Riney said the food pantry wouldn’t be what it is today.

“It’s really about working the relationships that you know,” she said, “Because many people really care, and it’s a very tangible way to assist our students.”

Durham Tech recently participated in a nationwide survey by the Temple University Hope Center for College, Community and Justice that found 42% to 56% of community college students are food insecure.

Riney hopes that going forward, the food pantry will be able to further its local partnerships, as well as develop relationships with other community college food pantries around the state.

In April, she will make a presentation to the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges about student food insecurity as a first step to developing those relationships.

“I really want them to realize it’s not an exception or a random student there,” Riney said. “We need to collectively advocate for our food insecure students. You’re talking about roughly 50% of your students. That’s a lot.”

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