Carnegie Mellon University

Open for Business: CMU Pantry aims to reduce student food insecurity on campus

November 08, 2018

Open for Business: CMU Pantry aims to reduce student food insecurity on campus

By Stephanie Laughton, VP of Campus Affairs AY18-19

On Food Insecurity: Why it is an issue we care about

When one thinks about food insecurity, the images that come to mind may be people in developing countries on small subsistence farms or people living in food deserts, the urban equivalent. What comes to mind is probably not a student at an elite, private university. Yet, that is exactly the situation that has been uncovered in recent research over the past few years. College students, especially graduate students, have a wide range of financial obligations to complete their education and typically very little financial income; this inequality of financial resources may present as food insecurity.

When this phenomenon was quantified at CMU in The Needs Assessment of Collegiate Food Insecurity in SW Pennsylvania: The Campus Cupboard Study (2017) it was determined that 19% of student respondents at CMU experienced moderate to high food insecurity, which was determined by questions tied directly to students’ ability to afford food. It is also worth noting that another 19% of students at CMU can be classified as “at-risk” of becoming food insecure (Cross, 2018). GSA was particularly concerned because the study identified international and master’s level students as more likely to be food insecure and students of those identities make up a majority of the graduate student body.

Figure: Percentage of Carnegie Mellon University students who experience food insecurity on a regular basis (data taken from Cross, 2018).

In Fall 2017, GSA created the Basic Needs Working Group, with Sarah Pesi (Master’s Public Policy and Management student, Heinz College) as its inaugural Chair to further investigate the need at CMU’s campus and propose mechanisms by which GSA and the CMU administration could mitigate the situation for students. In response to the alarming study findings, the Food Insecurity Committee was convened under Liz Vaughan (SLICE) consisting of staff, faculty, and students. By late Spring 2018, both groups had come to a consensus and submitted a joint proposal to the CMU administration. The proposal contained three main elements:

  1. The creation of an on-campus food pantry to serve the campus community. The Basic Needs Working Group was fundamental in researching, setting forward practices and policies for its functioning, and putting together the proposal.

  2. Expanded educational initiatives surrounding food insecurity as it affects college students. This includes better training for faculty and staff on campus to recognize signs of food insecurity and connect students with relevant resources. Additionally, workshops tailored toward the student body would be utilized to advance awareness of the issue and hopefully destigmatize the process of getting assistance if one finds themselves in a tight spot.

  3. Creation of CMU policies regarding food recovery and food sharing initiatives to benefit the student body. Food sharing and recovery is intended to make the most of already purchased and prepared foods so more can be consumed instead of thrown in the trash. Due to legal issues and existing contracts, more work needed to be proposed in this space before students can directly benefit.

In August 2018, the proposal received support from CMU President Farnam Jahanian and the rest of executive leadership of the University. Achieving that, the Working Group and Committee members were able to focus their efforts for the first half of the Fall 2018 semester on getting the Pantry space renovated and set up ahead of our November opening date.

On The CMU Pantry: How it works

The CMU Pantry (or just the Pantry) will open for business the week of November 12, 2018 in the Residence on Fifth (an undergraduate dormitory located at the corner of Fifth and Neville). The facility itself is constructed in a former industrial kitchen in the building which allowed access to a walk in refrigerator to hold produce.

Students will have many questions about how the Pantry will operate following it’s announcement and we try our best to address those questions here.

  • Who can use the Pantry?

    • Any CMU student is eligible to use it! We are able to operate in a need blind manner. This means that you do not need to present any information about your income level when you come. Also, it is important to note that the resource is accessible to both domestic and international students.

  • When is the Pantry open?

    • The Pantry has set open hours a couple of days a week where you can just walk in. The most up to date list of hours can be found on the website. However, for the Fall 2018 semester, hours are:

      • Thursday: 5-7 p.m.

      • Friday: 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.

      • Saturday: 2-4 p.m.

    • If you are unable to make it to any of the listed hours, you can also email the Pantry Coordinator ( to set up an appointment at another time to go shop.

  • How much can I get during a shopping trip at the Pantry?

    • While the Pantry is set up like a grocery store to allow shoppers to pick the items that they want out of the available stock, there are limits on how many items of particular categories you can take. (Find the Shopping Limits on the website.) The idea of the Pantry is to supplement a student’s core need for nutrition and not solely their discretionary want for snack food.

    • The limits were set to help offset the cost of around half of a student’s expected grocery load for a two week period with staple food items. Each student is allowed two visits to the Pantry per month. They establish a maximum set of items that a shopper can take, however if someone chooses to take less, that is allowed. It is important to understand that if you take less on one shopping trip, you will not be allowed to take more than the limit on your next trip or to get an additional trip instead.

    • The limits are listed as per person and can be scaled to the total number of people in your household (for students with partners and dependants).

  • Can I get someone to pick up on my behalf from the Pantry?

    • Yes, you can. You must register them with the Pantry Coordinator (either in person or via email) as an “Authorized Alternate Shopper”. Authorized alternate shoppers may be another student (who would also have to register and shop at the Pantry) or a partner/spouse (if they are not a student as well, they would need a sponsored CMU ID card). For more information about this process, you can email the Pantry Coordinator (

  • What is the process like to shop at the Pantry?

    • First, you would access the facility and check in with one of the volunteers (they should be wearing a bright colored lanyard so they are easy to spot). They will then assist you in filling out the Intake Survey. Once the survey is complete, you will be allowed to walk through the shopping area and collect the items you want. Finally, you will take your items back to the front to be weighed out and you can complete the Post-Shopping Survey. This survey is the best way to give feedback to the Pantry about the limits and the availability of certain items. Then, you are good to go.

  • Will it go on my student record that I went to the Pantry?

    • This has been asked a couple of times, and the answer is mostly ‘no’. Your trip to the Pantry will not go on your record anywhere. If you apply for an Emergency Student Loan, we may be asked to disclose if you have attended the Pantry when your loan amount is being assessed; however, that would be one of the few times where your attendance would be shared.

If you have any other questions, be sure to check out the CMU Pantry website, email the Pantry Coordinator (, or you can drop by our Open House Event (9 November 2018, 3-5pm at the Pantry).

On The CMU Pantry: How can I help

While the CMU Pantry does receive some funding and administrative support from the Division of Student Affairs, it is ultimately run by students. There is the Pantry Coordinator who is a hired student worker overseeing the day-to-day functioning of the Pantry. The Pantry Advisory Board is made up of staff, students, and faculty who meet to help advise the Coordinator and provide continuity from year to year and coordinator to coordinator. However, ultimately the successful operation of the Pantry relies on volunteers.

The two main roles of volunteers are (1) sorting and labeling of stock items in the Pantry and (2) assisting shoppers. Additionally, volunteers may be asked to assist the Coordinator in creating fliers and running workshops about food insecurity on campus. To indicate your interest in serving as a volunteer, you can complete this survey. You would then be contacted by the Pantry Coordinator about the upcoming training sessions that you must complete prior to being able to work in the Pantry.

If you do not have time to give to the Pantry, you can also give in more tangible ways. Donations of unopened non-perishable food items are accepted at all times and are a fundamental way the Pantry is able to diversify the items it can offer. Small donations can be dropped off at the first floor SLICE office in the Cohon University Center. Anything larger than a single grocery bag worth of items should be dropped off directly at the Pantry. Please email the Pantry Coordinator to set a time. Donations should not be dropped off during walk in shopping hours to protect shopper privacy.

If you have a bit of time and resources to give, consider setting up a food drive with your organization or department to benefit the CMU Pantry. If you want tips to set it up or access to the official Pantry Logos, you should contact the Pantry Coordinator. They will also be the point person when it comes time to schedule a drop off of the items you collect during your drive.

GSA is incredibly excited to see how quickly the CMU Pantry has been able to launch from the time food insecurity was initially highlighted as an issue facing students on campus. We hope that the Pantry will remain open for years to come so it can continue to benefit the graduate student body in particular as they face the increasingly difficult financial burden of attaining higher degrees.

Photos from the Opening

Inside the Shopping Area

Inside the shopping area.

Example of what someone could get under the per person shopping limit

 Cans and food on a table.

Looking at the doors to the Pantry

 Entrance to Pantry with Pantry logo