George Washington University has for years pushed back against the notion that it is a pricey school for rich kids. The school grew its financial aid and ditched a requirement for applicants to submit admission test scores — measures intended to underscore a desire to recruit students from all levels of family income.
Now comes more evidence of economic diversity at GWU: The university is opening a food pantry to help students who are hungry and low on funds obtain free food, seven days a week, no questions asked.
The Store, as GWU calls it, is part of a growing national movement to combat hunger among college students. Advocates say hundreds of campus pantries are distributing free food around the country, a total that has risen significantly in five years.
“A lot of schools are asking the question, ‘Do we have food-insecure students?’ ” said Clare Cady, co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance. But she said that sometimes “image, risk and politics” prevent schools from taking action.
The alliance has 361 members, up from 15 in 2011 and 160 in 2014. Nearly all have active campus pantries. Among its members are Howard and Trinity Washington universities in the District, George Mason University in Northern Virginia and the University of Maryland at College Park.
GWU’s pantry in the District is scheduled to formally open Oct. 1, but it has quietly begun serving students in recent days in a room in the basement of a residence hall between H and I streets NW known as District House. As of Thursday, 21 students had registered interest in using the service. One who did come for food left a note on a brown paper bag:
“I just want to say thank you,” the note said. “I walked in and I felt terrified. I cried at how many options there are, and how much people must care to do this. Bless you all.”
Emily Harrison, 20, a junior from Anoka, Minn., said Thursday that she plans to volunteer at the pantry and that she might use it herself from time to time. Food insecurity, she said, “is a topic I’m passionate about.” Harrison said that she helped start a food bank at her high school and that she believes there is need at GWU too. “Maybe more than we think,” she said.
Justin Archangel, 21, a senior from Moraga, Calif., also plans to volunteer. He said he sympathizes with students in need because when he was applying to college both of his parents lost their jobs.
“We were in a tough spot,” he said, noting that even though GWU is sometimes stereotyped as a “rich kids’ school,” many on campus are not wealthy. “I wouldn’t be here without scholarships.”
At GWU, full tuition, fees, and room and board total about $64,000 a year. Many students get grants and scholarships to reduce the price — a discount worth, on average, more than $27,000 a year. But they also must juggle living expenses and weigh whether and how much to borrow to pay their bills. Those challenges aren’t unique to GWU. They are found at all levels of higher education, from community colleges to the Ivy League.
When their meal funds run low, as sometimes happens, students scrimp on food. A survey in April of undergraduate and graduate students at GWU found 43 percent of respondents said they at some point had experienced not having enough to eat, and 52 percent said they were aware of others who were going hungry.
GWU officials, aware of the problem, said they began talking about a pantry in February. Tim Miller, associate dean of students, said the Store will be open to any member of the GWU community — students and staff — who registers through a private online portal.
Unlike many other pantries with limited hours, the one at GWU plans to be open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Those who want to take advantage of the service will use an identification card to enter the room, pick up a paper bag, fill it with what they need and leave. The room will run on the honor system, without any staff or volunteers present. Officials hope the hands-off approach will reduce any stigma that might prevent those in need from showing up.
“It’s about faith and trust,” Miller said.
The Store will close from noon to 2 p.m. daily while volunteers stock the shelves.
The first batch of food was brought in recently from the university’s food service. Shelves were loaded with pasta, rice, spices, coffee, tea, jam, peanut butter, granola bars, cereal, juice, canned vegetables, pancake mix and other staples. There also were bags of potato chips and marshmallows, bottles of hot sauce and an array of pots, pans, plates and mugs.
Miller said the operation is entirely funded by donors, at a modest cost. The annual expense will be perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 at most, depending on how much the facility is used, he said. He said GWU plans to stock the pantry through a partnership with the Capital Area Food Bank. He said the school also is arranging to get fresh produce and other perishables from other sources. GWU officials said they are committed for the long haul.
Often the biggest obstacle to starting a campus pantry is figuring out how to keep it going.
“If you build it and can’t sustain it, that is less ethical than doing nothing,” Cady said.