Skip to content

Dealing with hunger on campus: Durham Tech’s Campus Harvest Food Pantry

Just before noon, a line of students starts forming outside a classroom in the Edward L. Phillips Building at Durham Tech. At first glance, it might seem like the students are waiting for their next class. In reality, they are waiting to visit the campus food pantry. 

Food pantries on college campuses are becoming more common. When Durham Tech opened their food pantry in 2013, they were one of few colleges and universities with campus food pantries, according to Erin Riney, director of the Center for College and Community Service at Durham Tech. Now, however, they are part of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, an organization started to support food pantries on college campuses that now has 641 members.

A month ago, over 500 people met in Philadelphia for the third Real College convening to discuss issues of food and housing insecurity on college campuses, and the topic has gained attention in the media. Just last month, The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, published an article about student food insecurity

Conversations about student hunger began several years ago at Durham Tech as students, faculty, and staff started noticing that many students were coming to school hungry. 

We were keeping granola bars in our offices,” Riney said. 

At the same time, six students realized their classmates were in need of groceries and organized food bags to give away. Within ten minutes, the students had given away all 50 bags. 

“We realized there needed to be a resource for students,” Riney said, “because they are so focused on academics and they’re here to learn, but they also need to have their basic needs met.”

These experiences led to the creation of the Campus Harvest Food Pantry in 2013. Started as a bookshelf in Riney’s office, the pantry has grown to occupy a full room with shelves of food lining the walls. Last year, the pantry served 570 students with over 4,600 visits, and last week, I had the chance to visit the food pantry during the Triangle Community Foundation’s first Education in Action tour

Erin Riney takes participants on a tour of the Campus Harvest Food Pantry at Durham Tech on Wednesday, Nov. 7. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

The Campus Harvest Food Pantry is open to any student or employee with a valid Durham Tech ID. The pantry does not screen for need, Riney said, not only because they do not have the staff time or capacity to do so, but also because they recognize that screening by need means students will inevitably fall through the cracks. Instead, students fill out an intake form every time they come to the pantry so Riney can know how many students they have served.  

Riney helps run the pantry along with work study students and Durham Tech’s volunteer services coordinator. The pantry is funded completely through donations, grants, and partnerships; the college does not pay for any of the food. In addition to donations from students, faculty, staff, and community members, the pantry partners with the Interfaith Food Shuttle and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

The community has really embraced us and we appreciate that,” Riney said. 

The pantry supplements dry and canned goods with fresh produce donated by Interfaith Food Shuttle and grown in their community garden nearby. 

“We utilize [the community garden] as a space to grow fresh vegetables and items to give out in the food pantry,” Riney said. “But it’s also a place where students can learn about food and how to grow their own food.” 

Riney said many of the students she sees are less familiar with where their food comes from and how it is grown than those in her generation or older. “It’s been awesome to watch students learn about food,” she added.

The food pantry is organized by food group. Each shelf has a sign telling students how many items they are allowed during weekly shopping trips. Students can pick up snacks from noon until 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday and grocery shop once a week. In an emergency situation, Riney said, students can get groceries more often. 

“We use a shopping model rather than giving them a bag because we want them to pick foods that are personally and culturally appropriate,” Riney said. 

According to Riney, some items are more popular than others. They often run out of proteins like peanut butter and canned meats whereas they never seem to run out of garbanzo beans, for example.  

One reason some items are less popular is because students do not know how to use them. To help students learn how to prepare various items, the food pantry partnered with the Interfaith Food Shuttle and the Durham County Department of Health to provide food demonstrations. They also published a cookbook last year. 

“This was a herculean effort,” Riney said of the cookbook. “It was students, the community, faculty, and staff all coming together and contributing recipes. We told them our most frequent items, and we said we wanted simple recipes — not something that required an expensive ingredient.” 

Riney displays the food pantry’s cookbook published last year. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

The pantry is always looking for donations. “It takes a patchwork of services to be able to get this stocked, and sometimes it’s not stocked,” Riney said. Last week, for instance, they ran out of breakfast items and had to go to the local Food Lion and buy items at full price. For more information on how to donate, visit their website

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.