Coronavirus Forces Food Pantry Systems to Get Creative

With thousands of students stranded on or near their college campuses during the coronavirus pandemic, the job of addressing food security issues is requiring food pantry operators to seek out creative solutions to provide support. Many student unions where food pantries have been centered are closed, but both students and staff are continuing to distribute sustenance through deliveries, drop-offs, and by providing students with funds to buy groceries.

At the University of Toledo, fundraising for a program that offers students in need with $500 each for food, hygiene products, and housing assistance hit its $10,000 goal and was then upped to $30,000. Officials there said there are 125 students stranded on campus and that more than 1,000 had lost on-campus jobs.

Around 50 students each day at the University of Nevada are having food and hygiene supplies delivered to them through the campus escort program operated by Associated Students of the University of Nevada. The student-run food pantry traditionally has operated out of the Joe Crowley Student Union, but a food packaging distribution system has since been established in the larger Center for Student Engagement that allows for social distancing to be in place while work goes on to prepare the groceries for delivery.

Cars were lined up outside the student center at Southern Illinois University recently as more than 200 prepared meal packages were handed off to students who needed only to flash their “Dawg Tag,” a student ID, to receive the support. And at Harrisburg University one student employee continues to work at the student center’s hydroponics lab, and another at the campus garden, so that food can be harvested and then distributed to the 140 students forced to remain on campus.

Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union at the University of California–Berkeley is closed due to the pandemic, but staff there are conducting online and phone consultations with students facing food, housing, and financial difficulty. Each day staff members also delivery food and other supplies to students on or within three miles of campus, and planning is underway for the resumption of pop-up food stations that meet California’s social distancing requirements.

National organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation are urging that infrastructure that provides supplies through food banks and pantries remain in place, even as cities like San Francisco and San Jose report a drastic decline in the number of volunteers working at these sites.

In many cities, existing pantries continue to modify operations to prepare food insecure households for what could be long-term challenges to accessing food. These changes and modifications are tools student union pantries can use to keep volunteers and visitors safe from infection while continuing to provide needed supplies. Ideas include:

  • Increase the amount of supplies students can take, particularly shelf-stable products like canned goods and dried beans. In some cases, pantries are providing people with enough food for two weeks, or the length of a coronavirus quarantine period, and telling them to save that food in case they are quarantined.
  • Develop prepackaged boxes of supplies that replace a grocery store model where people mill around and take food from shelves. It’s a good way to reduce person-to-person contact and exposure from items touched by others.
  • Consider distributing a coronavirus response kit that offers not only a two-week supply of food, but also things like pet food, diapers, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies.
  • Consider shifting operations to either a mobile delivery service or a drive-thru operation. These minimize opportunities for disease spread by reducing the number of people congregating in public spaces.
  • If volunteers are collecting supplies from stores and other donation sources, or if they are sorting food for packages or to go on shelves, make sure they wear gloves.
  • Just as drive-thru and mobile deliveries work for distribution, consider the same methods for receiving donations. Pantries are reporting surges in requests for food, which can also become messaging for increased donations.

If a pantry is running low on supplies and is worried about future resources, it may be worth checking with Feeding America. It’s the United States’ largest domestic hunger-relief organization, and in March, Feeding America announced a $2.65 million fund would be available to food banks as a response to the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. The funds are specifically earmarked to enable food banks to secure resources for vulnerable community members. More information about that program is available at

In Indiana, the state followed a tool used by Feeding America that provides online access to maps showing food pantries. Feeding America’s national mapping site is here, while Indiana’s food assistance map can be accessed here. Both interactive maps allow visitors to search for food availability by region and zip code.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.