Food pantry sees demand rise

More students seeking assistance from Viking Food Pantry this semester 

The Viking Food Pantry is on pace to distribute over 20,000 pounds of food this semester to Del Mar students, according to its director. In its first year of operation in 2019, the pantry only served 15 students but that changed once Travis Collingsworth, a social work major at Texas &M University–Kingsville and DMC alumnus, came to the program.

“They didn’t have a full-time pantry person,” Collingsworth said. “As soon as I got here, we had a 200 to 300% increase. We were serving 60 to 80 students a month a year ago and it’s slowly gone up from there.”

The Viking Food Pantry works in partnership with the Coastal Bend Food Bank and is part of the Healthy Pantry Project through Feeding America, a nonprofit organization with a nationwide network of over 200 food banks. 

Through that project, the Viking Food Pantry has been able to offer healthier options such as low sodium foods, whole grain rice and pastas and frozen meats. 

“Since we joined the Healthy Pantry Project, they came in and did an audit and we did really well,” Collingsworth said. “They gave us a grant for one freezer and a month later, they came back and gave us a grant for a second freezer.”

According to Rita Hernandez, interim dean of Student Engagement and Retention, the pantry was established by the Student Government Association and then-Dean Cheryl Sanders to meet the food and security needs of DMC students. 

“We were finding that students were struggling to put food on their tables,” Hernandez said. “Many of our students are employed, they have lives outside of here, oftentimes have children while going to school.

“Some don’t but still struggle with finding food and if that was something we could assist with, that was the motivation behind setting it up,” Hernandez said.

Once DMC reached out to the Coastal Bend Food Bank, they were provided with everything needed to set up and run the food pantry.

“It’s an excellent partnership,” Hernandez said. “They gave us everything as far as regulations, how to get set up so that we could order food from the food bank and the deliver food to us. We’re an established food pantry for the Coastal Bend.”

Food deliveries come once a week to meet the increasing demand.

Occupational Therapy student Brittany Jones started using the food pantry at the beginning of the year after she and her husband were awarded full custody of his son and relocated. 

“It’s been a big help to my husband and I,” Jones said. “We wouldn’t really be able to make ends meet without a little bit of help right now. It’s been very beneficial for me as a student.”

An employee of the Coastal Bend Food Bank delivers a new shipment to the Viking Food Pantry earlier this month.

Jones is just one of the many students being served by the Viking Food Pantry. 

According to Hernandez, the pantry has seen an increase from about 100 students in 2019 to a total of 436 participants from August 2020 to July 2021 and continues to grow this year. So far this semester, 119 students have been helped.

“This is our biggest year. We’re only on the second month of the semester,” Hernandez said. “We’re probably going to be serving anywhere from 300 students to 500 students for the entire year.”

The pantry shut down at the beginning of the pandemic but, according to Hernandez, in fall 2020 the pantry reopened for mass food distributions by the White library and garnished a huge response. The pantry then reopened for curbside pickup and she noticed a continued increase.

“Then came the freeze and a lot of our students lost their food,” Hernandez said. “We did a lot of outreach with global announcements on Canvas and social media to make sure that students were aware of the food pantry and we had so many students that didn’t realize that this was here.”

Hernandez said they try to accommodate every student’s needs in regard to specific dietary limitations such as low sodium or gluten-free diets.

“Whenever we have students who might need a gluten-free diet or there are certain things they are allergic to, we’ll ask if they have any specific dietary restrictions or needs and we’ll try to meet those needs as best we can,” Hernandez said. “But because we get our food from the food bank, we get whatever they have available.”

If those needs cannot be met, Hernandez said they will try to connect those students with other pantries in the community that may be able to meet those needs.

The Viking Food Pantry is available for currently enrolled DMC students who have been self-referred or referred by other students, faculty, staff, administration or community members. Students are allowed two visits per month and are given up to 35 pounds of foods per visit.

According to Hernandez, it’s easy to qualify.

“Basically, every student who has ever come in has qualified,” Hernandez said. “If for any reason they are at an increased level that might disqualify them, they can come and speak to me and let me know what their circumstances are.

“There’s always a way for us to figure out how to support students because things come up regardless of where you are in life,” Hernandez said.

Nursing student Katrina Longoria has been using the pantry for two years. The single mother of three said that many times she has had to make the decision between paying a bill and putting food on the table and having the pantry has really helped to make those choices.

“I think that it’s helpful especially when it comes to giving students the security to know that ‘even if I can’t afford groceries, I know that I can go and just ask,” Longoria said. “There is nothing to be embarrassed about asking for help at all.

“We all struggle. We’ve all been there,” Longoria said. “It’s a great program and I hope it continues.”

The pantry is open from 1-5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday but with the addition of a student assistant, the pantry soon will be able to extend hours to better serve the needs of DMC students. 

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