When prospective students and their families tour the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus and see the Triton Pantry located in the Millennium Student Center, Director of Student Advocacy & Care Robin Kimberlin knows it sends a message. The pantry offers nonperishable, fresh, frozen and canned foods, as well as household items to UMSL students in need – no questions asked.
“I think it is really meaningful,” Kimberlin said. “When they see something like a pantry, they automatically know that this is a community of care – we care about our students. We recognize that they’re real people, things can happen, and we’re here to wrap around them with support.”
“There’s a sense of security,” adds Case Manager Shannon Quinn. “You can tell that parents feel good about sending their kids to a school that has resources like a food pantry.”
Research before the pandemic found that 30 percent of all college students nationwide experienced food insecurity at some point in their college careers, and the pandemic only exacerbated those challenges, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities.
The Triton Pantry was created to help alleviate needs in the UMSL community, and it operates on a self-choice model in which students are free to visit the pantry and select the items that will work best for them. Any enrolled UMSL student who is experiencing or is at risk of food insecurity or hunger can take advantage of Triton Pantry’s offerings. This year, Giving Tuesday gifts at UMSL will help support the ongoing work of the Triton Pantry.
“We’re here to help students who are facing food insecurity and hunger,” Kimberlin said. “And it’s a self-identified need, so we don’t ask questions. If you’re telling us you’re in need, come in and get what you need. We try to keep it a very accessible, open environment so that any student can feel welcomed, whether it’s a one-time thing because their car broke down and they had to put most of their money that month toward that and they just needed a little extra help, or if it’s an ongoing need and they’re having to come to the pantry once a week for their whole time at UMSL. We’re there to support them.”
The pantry has grown substantially over the years, striving to reach as many students as possible. Kimberlin, who began in her role as a master’s student in the School of Social Work, initially started Triton Pantry as a much smaller operation suppling small snack bags to students in need on campus. As the understanding of the need on campus grew, Triton Pantry began hosting pop-up pantries throughout the year and officially opened in its current home in the MSC in the fall of 2018 as part of the Division of Student Affairs.
Initially open to students just once a month, Triton Pantry is now open five days a week. As operating hours have expanded, so has the pantry’s impact on campus. When the pantry was open twice a month, for instance, it would see about 200 students total. Last year, the pantry had 4,000 visits and gave away 26,000 pounds of food.
“The need was always there; we just didn’t know and we didn’t have the capacity to support them,” Kimberlin said. “It’s almost like as we have grown and the Triton Pantry has grown, students with need have increasingly come forward. As access to education continues to grow and as the financial demands on families and students and individuals grows, and the cost of things grow, the ability for their budget to stretch at the end of the month continues to be squeezed. Oftentimes balanced meals, healthy food is the first thing to go.
“When you think about being a university student, especially an UMSL student, who typically works or has a family or other responsibilities, they are reducing their wage and earning hours in order to come to school, so they’re working less while paying for tuition, books, laptops, what have you. There’s just a lot of strain on them financially.”
“Post-COVID, I think people are just more willing to ask for help,” Quinn added. “Being in need is less and less something that is being looked down on, and people feel more comfortable coming into the pantry, especially now that we have this space.”
In addition to food, Triton Pantry also stocks household items including bathroom tissue and toiletries and personal items such as period supplies. Kimberlin said the pantry is continuing to expand its offerings through collaborations with the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank to provide student parents in need with diapers and with the Alliance for Period Supplies to provide pads and tampons. Last year, the Triton Pantry gave away close to 10,000 diapers.
“That’s something we’re super proud of because the idea is that students are already on campus for classes and part of our community, so how can we make things as accessible and easy for them to tap into while they’re already,” Kimberlin said. “We also have household items, everything from toothpaste to paper towels to all-purpose cleaner.”
As in its early days, the pantry is still staffed by student employees, many of whom are studying in the School of Social Work. As operating hours have increased, the team has expanded; when Quinn started, she was one of three student workers, and the pantry now employs seven student workers. She said having the pantry staffed by fellow students helps make the experience less intimidating to students seeking out its resources.
“It’s really great having fellow students in there,” Quinn said. “It helps us normalize this resource. I think having student workers in there helps create this open, welcoming environment as opposed to an office that you’re walking into.”
That friendly, welcoming environment also gives the Triton Pantry staff the ability to foster connections with students that go beyond any food security needs.
“When they’re in there, we’re also like, ‘How are classes going?’ ‘How are you doing?’ and they’re going to tell us things,” Kimberlin said. “If they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m freaking out about bio,’ we’re like, ‘Just so you know, we have a tutoring center upstairs. Let me send you that information. We’re not only a food resource, but we’re also looking at them through the lens of their success as a student and their retention as a student at UMSL.”
Moving forward, Kimberlin and Quinn hope to expand partnerships with other departments and groups around campus to grow the reach and impact of the Triton Pantry. They’ve been working with the UMSL Sustainability Office to stock the pantry with nutritious foods grown in the on-site campus garden so that students can make balanced choices while in the pantry.
They’d also like to partner with different colleges such as the College of Nursing to set up a satellite pantry location to reach students who don’t often make their way to North Campus. Over the summer, for instance, Quinn launched a pilot program for diaper pick-up available in the School of Social Work.
“We know students need us, but we can’t be everywhere all the time,” Kimberlin said. “We’d like to find ways to creatively create accessibility for students that currently don’t find their way to the Triton Panty for whatever reason.”
Offering more education and outreach on food insecurity across campus is also a major goal for Triton Pantry as it continues to expand its reach. For Hunger Action Month in September, for instance, the organization hosted an event in which students wrote “When I’m hungry, I can’t ____” on a paper plate. Students filled the plates with phrases such as, “I can’t study,” “I’m not myself,” and “I don’t have coping skills.”
“It was very impactful to see actual UMSL students’ words of what they can’t do when they’re hungry,” Kimberlin said. “It’s helping campus understand broadly what food insecurity is, what it means, and what it looks like for our students. We want people to understand that it’s a basic need, and if we want engaged, successful students at our university, we have to recognize that providing this type of support matters.”
UMSL is celebrating Giving Tuesday by bringing attention to the Triton Pantry. To make a donation to the Triton Pantry, please visit giving.umsl.edu/givingtuesday.