UW News

April 28, 2020

Food pantry, emergency grants help students in need during all-remote spring quarter

UW News

Person standing in front of shelves of food, carrying a shopping basket.

The UW Food Pantry has shifted to an online ordering system for spring quarter. Volunteers place items for each order in baskets, and customers bag their own.Olivia Hagan/U. of Washington


At the University of Washington’s food pantry, the shelves are stocked with cans, jars, boxes and bags, but not for customers to browse. The storefront on the street level of Poplar Hall is open, but only for shoppers to grab and go.

And business? Steady.

This is the new UW Pantry: Still providing free food to anyone with a Husky Card, but for the all-remote spring quarter, accepting only online orders. With fewer students currently living in the University District and on campus, the number of orders is half of normal — about 150 a week — but has stayed consistent. Nearly one-fourth of recent customers are new.

“The people who were financially struggling before all of this have in no way stabilized their situation,” explained Sean Ferris, manager of student success for the UW Division of Student Life. A recent survey of pantry users found that many have lost jobs or had their hours cut, or now live with a family member who is out of work and rely on the pantry to get by.

“We work with students, an audience that is often overlooked in policy decisions such as unemployment benefits or basic-needs food assistance. And the expectation is that somehow they are self-sufficient, which is a challenging expectation,” Ferris said. “It doesn’t take much to move from food secure to food insecure, and that’s what’s happened.”

Under circumstances that have upended students’ academic and personal lives, changes to the pantry are just one of the ways the university community – students, staff, donors and alumni – is rethinking traditional programs and services to try to meet the needs that arise.

A primary need is financial: Applications are up for emergency aid grants, which provide funds for tuition, supplies, technology lost wages, even basic household needs such as food security. Since March 6, more than 500 grants have been requested across all three campuses, compared to 366 grants requested during the entire 2018-2019 academic year. So far, the number of grant applications from UW Bothell students was two-thirds the campus’ total for all of 2019.

“The fund helps students in every way possible,” said Tomitha Blake, assistant vice provost for advancement, academic and student affairs. “We’re recognizing that distance learning is impactful for every student, and even more so for students who have overcome significant hurdles to be at the UW. Students are in need, and it’s unprecedented for them and their families.”

For more information on how to contribute to programs providing student assistance, visit the UW COVID-19 Student Emergency Fund, Any Hungry Husky, or the broader university efforts of Together We Will.

Students apply for grants online and identify which campus they attend. A financial aid counselor contacts the student, and staff then route the request to the appropriate office. Response times have slowed slightly due to the volume of requests, but staff try to contact students within four to five days.

Sometimes other groups on campus, such as a student’s academic home department, might be asked to contribute. During the pandemic, however, many groups have simply redirected their resources to the fund. UW Tacoma’s class of 2020 decided to dedicate its class gift to the emergency assistance for Tacoma students.

A broader campaign has launched to support all students and add to UW resources and federal grants. The UW also will be receiving $19.8 million in student financial aid from the U.S. Education Department as part of the federal CARES Act to be distributed to students who have the most significant need.

Meanwhile, some of the university’s strategic partners, AT&T, BECU and Coca-Cola, are supporting the Seattle and Tacoma food pantries by donating money, supplies and resources. (Starbucks, another of the university’s strategic partners, continues to donate excess food from its campus locations to the food pantry.) AT&T contributed $50,000 toward needs at both pantries, and at UW Tacoma will also support delivery efforts for customers who can’t make the trip to campus.

The $25,000 donated to the Seattle campus pantry can pay for months’ worth of inventory, Ferris said. Food drives, a traditional source of donations, aren’t feasible during the pandemic, so the pantry will need to buy more to stock up, especially on staples or more expensive items such as sauces, peanut butter, rice and pasta to meet the need during spring and summer.

person placing radishes in a blue shopping basket

The UW Food Pantry generally fills online customer orders within 12 hours.Olivia Hagan/U. of Washington

Shortly after the switch to remote instruction at the end of winter quarter, UW Housing and Food Services donated to the pantry 500 pounds of fresh food, such as produce, eggs and dairy items, that wouldn’t be able to be served in campus dining facilities. The pantry distributed nearly all of it to customers, and HFS has set aside cooler space for its ongoing donations to the pantry, which in turn displays a “fresh sheet,” restaurant-style, for customers to order from at pick-up. UW Farm Manager Perry Acworth said the farm has begun sending produce to the pantry, as well.

The switch to an online-ordering system at the pantry – also implemented at UW Tacoma — is practical for both staffing and shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic. At UW Bothell, the Husky Pantry at Husky Village remains open, but visits are down, and students are provided with information about how to find other nearby food banks and pantries.

At the Seattle campus pantry, health and safety is a priority for customers and workers alike, Ferris said. There is a designated area for a line outside the pantry, with markings for where customers should stand at a safe distance apart, and a pantry worker greets each customer outside to take their name and identification number. Inside, workers maintain social distancing, sanitize frequently and wear gloves. Face masks are encouraged.

Barriers prevent customer access to the pantry’s store shelves; when a customer steps inside, a worker brings their order, in a basket, to a table by the front door, and the customer bags their own food. The typical visit inside is designed to last fewer than two minutes.

The online shift definitely altered operations, UW Pantry coordinator Alexandra Rochester said, but new volunteers stepped up to help, and staff remain flexible and strategic.

“It has always been a conflicting feeling to serve so many people because it confronts you with how many people are food insecure, and with each new visitor opting to use our resource, you see the effects of what’s happening to the world,” said Rochester, a graduate student in the Department of Communication. “But it’s also a good feeling because they’re utilizing a service to help themselves, so it’s satisfying to be able to provide that.”