PSU continues feeding students in need of help with free food pantry

Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 10:11 PM PST
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - What first started as a single shelf has evolved into a 400-square-foot food pantry on the Portland State University Campus.

“By 2016, we had a relationship with the Oregon Food Bank and moved into a larger space and immediately exploded in growth,” said Trenna Wilson, the PSU Food Pantry general manager. “Eventually we became a student-operated service. We are run 100% by students, for students. We are constantly adding refrigerator capacity and more and more shelving. I think we deplete and refill those shelves about once a day lately. Our use has really exploded.”

Wilson joined the PSU community last year. She says over the years, the food pantry has adapted and the need as grown.

“During the pandemic, before I was here, the pantry had to change the way it did business several times,” said Wilson. “First, it moved into the 5th Avenue Cinema, one of the other student-operated services, since they had to totally shut down. We borrowed their space, moved in there, and had just a window. People could come up to the window and look around. There was also some effort to ship students packages of dry goods. We then moved back into our normal space once the campus opened again. It’s just been the last spring and summer that we’ve begun to normalize. I started in July. We haven’t known what to expect, but by fall we were close to pre-pandemic numbers and the last week or so we’ve been exceeding those numbers. During the fall, we averaged 93 students a day while classes were in session. In the summer, by comparison, we’d seen between 110 to 120 a week.”

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The PSU Food Pantry gets its donations dropped off by the Oregon Food Bank every Wednesday, usually receiving thousands of pounds of food a week, depending on the week. Wilson says they spend several hours getting the food, bringing it into their pantry, sanitizing and cleaning the items, and prepping them before putting them on the shelves.

“We start seeing a line outside often by around 11 o’clock and then we open at noon,” Wilson said. “We see a steady stream of students until we close at 5 o’clock.”

Wilson says at the rate they’ve been serving students this year, the Pantry provides almost as many meals as the dining hall.

Click here to find ways to get food at the pantry.

Earlier this month, U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici hosted a roundtable at Portland State University to discuss food insecurity on Portland area campuses with students, faculty and staff. Several colleges and universities participated in the discussion, some saying they’ve seen people choosing between buying textbooks or food.

SEE ALSO: Choosing between textbooks, food: Rep. Bonamici hosts discussion on college hunger

“I was really surprised myself when I started here last summer and I was digging into some studies about food insecurity among college students and food insecurity here on campus,” said Wilson. “Something that was really compelling to me is a 2019 study in which the PSU students who were surveyed among them almost 50% has experienced some form of food insecurity in the month prior to answering that survey. That is about 20% higher than the national average for four-year institutions. So it’s not only quite common, it’s especially common in public institutions and it’s especially common here. The one that was really heart wringing is about 9% of students, so close to 2,000 students, every month who had experienced, on average, 6 days in that month where they hadn’t eaten at all. These are our classmates. These are people who we are sitting next to who haven’t eaten all day.”

She and others working at the food pantry are constantly learning how to help students in need, fighting against stigmas surrounding food insecurity. Wilson said the pantry is guided by the principles of trauma informed care.

The PSU Food Pantry’s operating expenses are funded through student fees and most of their food comes through the Oregon Food Bank, their partner agency. They also receive donations through the Portland State Foundation and on their website. Wilson says a conservative estimate of the dollar amount of the food they provide, between the main pantry and the monthly Free Food Market, is about a million dollars per year.

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“If you’re a student, come visit us,” said Wilson. “Try it at least once. You’ve paid for us and coming to us one time helps cover the fees that you’ve paid to keep us in operation. Coming to us probably ten times will help cover all of your student fees. Don’t hesitate to come because you might think that life is hard, but you can still buy food but you can’t buy books or pay your cell phone bill. If you are struggling in any way, just come get some free groceries. If you’re not a student, just really think about all of the ways food insecurity appears. I was surprised to find that it isn’t just if someone is literally starving, it’s also not being able to access healthy foods, not being able to get foods that are something that you want to eat, not being able to follow your doctor’s recommendations. Our healthcare providers say you need to eat all these particular things to be well, but a lot of people can’t afford that. That is also food insecurity. College is a huge investment and our young people, whatever they are doing, college or something else, they need support. Teach young people to use these services where they are available so that the investment they are making in their future pays off.”

Through the month of January, FOX 12 is partnering with Fred Meyer and the Oregon Food Bank for the FOX 12 Hunger Free Project. Your contributions have raised thousands to help those in our community in need. Learn more here.