Community support, advocacy key to Argo Pantry success
Like other recent college graduates, University of West Florida alumna Joelle Fondo is excited to launch her career.
“To actually be in a job in my field of study is magnificent,” she said. “I am so thankful.”
Fondo, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in hospitality, is in training for her new role as a customer care representative at Gulf Power Company. As she celebrates her success, she also reflects on an experience she had as a UWF student that “completely changed” her life: a visit to the Argo Pantry.
During her sophomore year in 2014, Fondo visited the Dean of Students Office at the suggestion of a professor. Her household had recently grown, and she was having trouble keeping up with coursework. An employee asked her if she needed food assistance. At first, she said, she declined, despite the fact that she was experiencing food insecurity.
“Meals were a bag of rice, and I’d make gravy,” Fondo said. “That would hold us over for a few days. We had enough that I guess we weren’t needy, but it was hard.”
As she turned to leave the office that day, the staffer again offered access to the food pantry.
“I just started crying,” Fondo said. “I said, ‘OK, I really need help!’”
Walking to her car with groceries and toiletries in hand, Fondo said she felt overcome with relief. At home, she spread the items across her table in excitement and went about planning meals.
“It was like a celebration,” Fondo said.
Communicating the need
A 2016 study found that 48 percent of college students reported low to very low food security as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Very low food security indicates reduced intake and disrupted eating patterns and low food security indicates limitations on diet quality, variety and desirability, but not necessarily reduced intake.
The study, led by University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center and the Student Public Interest Research Groups, surveyed 3,765 students in 12 states at eight community colleges and 26 four-year institutions.
Making it happen
The Argo Pantry opened in Fall 2013 under the direction of Dr. Lusharon Wiley, senior associate dean of students at UWF. She and Dr. Keya Wiggins, a senior psychologist for UWF Counseling and Psychological Services, recognized a need to help students by providing access to nutritious food and basic supplies.
After researching national trends and food pantries at peer institutions, Wiley partnered with local nonprofit Manna Food Bank, which provided guidance on nutritional guidelines for distributed items. The pantry opened with shelving purchased by the Student Government Association, and Manna kept shelves stocked for the first six months.
“That gave us the opportunity to get up and running to see what they were doing, and their modeling the way helped us to then firmly establish the Argo Pantry,” Wiley said.
Donations from the campus, community organizations, businesses and private donors keep the pantry stocked. The pantry has received more than $20,000 in cash and in-kind donations in total, based on Wiley’s estimates.
“I have to express my sincere gratitude,” Wiley said. “For people to be thinking about the Argo Pantry and then being intentional, thoughtful and committed to making sure that it stays stocked means a lot.”
Paying it forward
For Fondo, the impact of the Argo Pantry prompted her to pay it forward during a Summer 2016 health communications course. Dr. Athena du Pré, Distinguished University Professor, authored the course textbook and taught the class. Instead of taking the earnings from the textbook sales for herself, she let the students determine how to spend the money.
When decision time came for the use of the money, Fondo spoke up.
“Whenever Athena told us that she was going to give us some funds that we could use for whatever we wanted, and we all decided that we were going to use it for some type of donation, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to advocate for Argo Pantry,” she said.
Still, Fondo had reservations about sharing her story.
“You have to overcome that little bit of embarrassment at first,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’m not the only kid in that class who was receiving goods, but if I didn’t say it and nobody else was going to, then it would have been a quiet subject.”
Bridging the gap
Like Fondo, other students might not see themselves as in need of food assistance but eventually come to accept its support.
“Part of case management is a holistic approach to seeing what the needs of the students are,” Wiley said. “And if it comes up in that conversation that not only am I struggling with some health issues, but I’m finding it hard to make ends meet, then the next question is, ‘Would it be helpful if you had food assistance? Would this then free up some money where you could pay your light bill?’”
Fondo said what helped her accept assistance was how the Dean of Students Office explained the purpose of the Argo Pantry.
“It didn’t matter if you were struggling in the worst way or if you’re struggling a little bit,” she said. “We all need help, so they’re able to help you a little bit, and you’re able to turn it around and help others.”
Wiley said she understands the challenges students face when seeking help.
“I think making a student feel comfortable and not stigmatized is utmost for me when we have students that come in and ask for assistance,” she said. “So No. 1, giving privacy to them, No. 2, making them feel welcome and not judged and then No. 3, the brevity of the actual application for food.”
The application, which is not income-based, asks only for name, student number and whether there are dependents in the household, because those students qualify for more items. The only students who do not qualify for pantry assistance are those with the largest campus meal plans. Thanks to a student who donated 700 reusable bags, patrons have an additional layer of privacy when they pick up food and personal care items. Students are allowed to pick up the items once per week, in addition to approved snack visits.
As Argo Pantry director and student ombudsperson, Wiley said she works to overcome students’ reluctance to ask for help.
“My hope is that we will create an environment for our students to understand that we see this as simply a bridge to a better place,” she said. “If we can do that, we can help them to see that we’re lending a hand because we know it will make a difference long-term.”
To learn more about Argo Pantry, visit uwf.edu/argopantry.
Want to help?
The Argo Pantry accepts food and personal care items as well as tax-deductible monetary donations. Monetary donations may be made at uwf.edu/argopantry. Suggested pantry items include:
Nonperishable food (no glass items, please)
Packets of dry milk
Personal care items
Antibacterial hand cleanser
Bar soap or body wash
Contact lens solution
Feminine hygiene items
Razors and shaving cream
Shampoo and conditioner
Toothbrushes and toothpaste