The CMU Pantry opens following study highlighting campus food insecurity

Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor

By now it’s no secret: at least 19 percent of students at Carnegie Mellon are living with food insecurity. The 2017 Campus Cupboard study on food insecurity at 11 colleges in the Pittsburgh area showed that for nearly 2,700 students at this school, access to food is a problem. Since last fall, students and university administration have been working hard to change that. On Friday afternoon, the fruits of their labor were celebrated at the brand-new CMU Pantry open house.

Located on the first floor of the Residence on Fifth housing community, the CMU Pantry aims to reduce student hunger by giving students access to free non-perishables and produce, as well as other basic needs items. Any Carnegie Mellon student can shop at the CMU Pantry after filling out the registration forms, and can return on a biweekly basis.
The Pantry is run by a mix of volunteers and paid staff, who assist new and returning shoppers with finding items, developing shopping lists, and meal planning. The small space consists of a checkout table with shopping guidelines, a walk-in refrigerator for fresh produce and dairy products, and a shelf section. On the shelves are condiments, a wide array of canned goods, grains, baking supplies, snack foods, and personal hygiene products.

About 60 people from the Carnegie Mellon community attended the open house, receiving fliers on topics like “Eating better on a budget” and “Smart snacking.” Pantry staff led visitors on tours of the small space, showing a sample shopping bag of items: a bag of rice, a carton of milk, a tube of toothpaste, a box of cereal, and multiple cans of beans, peas, and other vegetables.

Also in the Pantry is the “expired” shelf, which includes items ranging from Cliff bars to Matzoh to tortillas which have passed their “best by” date. Pantry Coordinator William Coggins explained that the “best by” date on most foods is somewhat arbitrary: “This food will still be good for a while, with no change in taste or nutritional value.” Items on the expired shelf, along with fresh produce from the walk-in refrigerator, have no limit on consumption: students can take as many as they need.

Along with access to food, said Coggins, a first-year graduate student in Heinz College, education is a major priority at the Pantry. “We realize that a big barrier to healthy eating could be not knowing what to do with food,” he said, gesturing towards a stack of recipe cards stacked on a shelf.

Of the numerous speakers at the open house, the only non-Carnegie Mellon affiliate was Charlese McKinney, the Network Development Director for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB). She spoke highly of Carnegie Mellon’s quick response to the study and of the importance of institutional partnerships: “Our traditional networks work with thousands of people in the Pittsburgh area,” she said to the room, “but there are thousands more we aren’t reaching. Campus Cupboards help us reach young bright minds who are struggling with food insecurity.”

The CMU Pantry is now a part of the GPCFB network, and will receive a majority of its staple items from the larger organization. GPCFB will also provide free produce donated by local farms. Other sourcing will come from campus food drives, community organizations such as 412 Food Rescue, and purchasing via the Pantry’s Division of Student Affairs (DOSA) budget.

“There’s also the potential to go out and buy directly from grocery stores,” said Stephanie Laughton, Vice President of Campus Affairs for the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), “particularly keeping an eye on the fact that our student population is very international and may not want a mostly American selection.” Laughton, a fourth-year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, played a key administrative role in the transition from proposal to reality this fall.

The initial push for the project came mostly from within the graduate student community. In what could only be described as perfect timing, second-year Heinz student Sarah Pesi began graduate school just before the results of the Campus Cupboard survey were released. “On the first day of graduate student orientation, I found myself in a conversation with Gina Casalegno about the study,” she recalled. Pesi spent the previous year managing the University of Pittsburgh food pantry as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, and has struggled with food insecurity in the past.

She founded the Graduate Student Assembly Basic Needs working group last fall to better understand the specific issues contributing to the problem, which eventually led to the creation of the Campus Food Insecurity Committee. This committee, consisting of staff and students from both undergraduate and graduate programs, worked with SLICE, Dining Services, Pitt, and the GPCFB to make the Pantry a reality.

Pesi, who has since stepped back from leading this effort to focus on school, spoke highly of the committee members. “We would spend hours on things,” she reminisced about the spring of 2018, when a core group of about six graduate and undergraduate students plugged away at the thirty-page comprehensive proposal document. “Our team was small but mighty,” she said with a smile.

In her closing remarks Friday afternoon, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Gina Casalegno expressed admiration for the efforts of the students and staff who made the CMU Pantry a reality, and looked to the future. “This issue is personal,” she said, “But I’m thrilled to say this is just the beginning. It doesn’t stop here.”
The CMU Pantry is free to all students and is located on the first floor of the Residence on Fifth (4700 Fifth Avenue). To donate shopping bags or inquire about volunteering, email the Pantry Coordinator at or call the SLICE office at 412-268-8704.
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