In the 1990s, it was just a drawer in the Binghamton University Financial Aid Services office where students could grab a few packets of ramen. Now, the Bear Necessities Food Pantry is an entire room stocked with canned goods, toiletries and frozen meals on the second floor of the University Union.
In the fall of 2014, the pantry had just 58 users. Last spring, 222 students used the free service, thanks to the increased promotion of its resources. The Dean of Students Office, which operates the food pantry, hired a team of interns this semester just to manage it.
Ryan Goss, one of the pantry’s interns and a junior majoring in economics, said that even with the increase, many students are still unaware of the resource.
“My goal for the program is to spread more awareness,” Goss said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that need it but don’t know about it.”
The pantry was given its own room in 2016 when Qiana Watson, the new case management coordinator at the Dean of Students Office, took over operations for the program.
According to a 2016 report by Students Against Hunger, 48 percent of college students had experienced food insecurity, or lack of access to enough affordable, nutritious food, in the past month.
One way Goss and the Dean of Students Office are trying to spread awareness is through the pantry’s monthly produce giveaway in the Tillman Lobby of the University Union. Two weeks ago, they gave away large quantities of cucumbers to students.
Since the Bear Necessities Food Pantry is mainly funded through donations, it depends on students, faculty members and organizations to donate food, toiletries and money. Organizations such as the Food Recovery Network, which makes individual meals; the Food Co-op, which donates vegan food; and the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW), which sends overstocked food, all work with and donate food to the program.
Donations aren’t limited to food, though; they can range from can openers to Old Navy flip-flops to coats. The pantry aims to provide students with a variety of goods that they may otherwise not be able to afford.
“There were times where I would be on campus and I would see students without a hat, scarf or glove on and then I would say, ‘Hey, do you have these items?’ and they would say no,” Watson said. “And then I would say, come walk with me to the food pantry so that I can give you some.”
Everything in the room is available to all registered BU students.
“There is no restriction, there is no screening process,” Goss said. “All you need is your Binghamton ID.”
According to Watson, many of the students utilizing the resource are international students and students living off campus. During the 2016-17 academic year, 70 percent of students using the pantry lived off campus, 26 percent lived on campus and the rest didn’t report their residence.
Watson said while the pantry is a great resource, it’s only a temporary relief.
“I try to remind people to be courteous of others who may be coming to the pantry and to find other avenues,” Watson said.
Since students need to fill out intake forms when they use the pantry, staff can see who is using the pantry more than the average amount. Staff members then reach out to these students asking if they need other community pantries or church charities to help fulfill their needs.
Watson said operating the pantry is a particularly fulfilling part of her job since she, too, has struggled with food insecurity.
“When I was in college, I was a food insecure person,” she said. “And no one knew that.”
Watson said she wants the resource to be accessible to all students who find themselves in a position of need.
“If I have food, I would rather feed you and not let you be hungry than worry if you’re someone that has a need because you have on new sneakers,” Watson said. “Anybody could have bought you those sneakers. If you’re a person in need, you’re a person in need.”