Penn State Wilkes-Barre food bank expands offerings through partnership

Local organization now contributing items to campus pantry
A close-up of granola bars with other food on shelves in the background

Items from Penn State Wilkes-Barre food pantry are available to all campus students.

Credit: Penn State

DALLAS, Pa. — Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s food pantry has a large variety of new items thanks to a local organization dedicated to fighting childhood hunger.

“Our food pantry is being used like never before, and we have more of a diverse student population using it,” said Wanda Ochei, director of student services and engagement. “We see students who are fitting the characteristics of students who would normally use a food bank, such as those receiving financial aid or those without family in the area, trying to supplement their pantries, but we’re also seeing students coming to the food bank for daily meals, maybe just a breakfast or a lunch item.”

After hearing from another campus about Child Hunger Outreach Partners (CHOP), which serves tens of thousands of students weekly in Pennsylvania as part of its mission to end childhood hunger, Ochei reached out to Dani Ruhf, founder and chief executive officer, to make a connection.

“Serving college students is very important to Child Hunger Outreach Partners because often they are forgotten about when it comes to food insecurity, making them even more vulnerable than school-aged children,” Ruhf said. “Our partnership with Penn State Wilkes-Barre is incredibly rewarding. Not only are we able to ensure the students have snacks and grab-and-go meals, we also have Penn State Wilkes-Barre students volunteer at our branch. It is truly a win-win situation.”

The initial donation, made earlier this semester, brought about 30 bins of food and health and beauty supplies to the campus. Through the partnership, CHOP will bring deliveries at no cost to the food pantry every two weeks, with the number of items provided based on campus student needs and total enrollment of students. In addition to breakfast, dinner and snack foods, deliveries can include things like gum, disinfecting wipes or hygiene items.

“Right from the start, they stocked us up really well,” said Susan Cunningham, student affairs administrative assistant. “Some of the new items went especially fast; the students were excited about those items. Representatives from CHOP also helped me rethink how I organized the shelves by grouping meal items together.”

Using items received from CHOP donations has enabled Cunningham to put together baskets to deliver to Student Government Association meetings or student events as a sampling of items currently available in the campus food pantry.

“These items provide a different variety of food, along with some treats,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to give the students a little something extra and I like being able to take snacks to a meeting or student event and saying they’re for everybody. Those little treats help break the stigma and students don’t feel shy about taking food because they see other students are taking it, too.”

Ochei added, “Food insecurity doesn’t all look the same. It is as diverse as the students we have on our campus. The mentality about food insecurity on our campus is shifting as different groups on campus have gotten involved with raising money or donating items to the food pantry. Thanks to some of the efforts Sue has implemented and more awareness on our campus, it’s more of a community approach.”

To better serve the students who are part of that community, the food pantry recently moved to a more centralized location in the Murphy Student Services Center. The new space also adds a capacity for refrigerated items, as Penn State Wilkes-Barre recently received a $4,350 grant from food ban enhancement funds at University Park that the campus plans to use to purchase two refrigerators.

“We will be able to buy items that will partner with our shelf-stable offerings to create a meal,” Ochei said. “We’ll be able to have milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt and increase the level of nutritious food we are offering to our students.”

The food pantry has already been visited by students more than 500 times in 2023, with nearly 100 of the visits coming from first-time users.

“The data from last year and the year before showed us an increased need for a pantry that was more well rounded and more diverse than what we had,” Cunningham said. “We know students don’t always have the availability to drive to a store to buy things, so we have changed what we offer. We now provide can openers, forks, bowls, spoons, napkins, toilet paper and more.”

In addition to the contributions from CHOP, the food pantry receives donations from the campus community.

“We have many generous, goodhearted people here on campus who support the food pantry either through donations of items or money we can use to purchase food,” Cunningham said. “We also have faculty members who have provided extra credit for their students who donate items to the food bank.”

Ochei agreed.

“That’s part of what we are as a campus," Ochei said. "This is a very caring campus when it comes to meeting the needs of our students.”

Students who would like to select items from the food pantry can do so by stopping by the Student Affairs Office in 101 Hayfield House from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Requests for items can also be made online using the Food Bank Request Form.