Allisa Lloyd • Contributing Writer
Nestled in a corner just before entering Robert R. Muntz Library, two blue doors that read “Patriot Pantry” rest as an unnoticed beacon of hope for students at The University of Texas at Tyler. Inside, shelves filled with cans sit free of charge for any student, faculty or community member in need of food.
In March of 2020, many UT Tyler students did not expect to transition to online classes after spring break. Many thought they would return to campus as usual, continue their spring classes and prepare for finals. However, a pandemic struck the U.S., forcing many students to stay home and leaving many students on campus.
“We were here [at UT Tyler] all by ourselves,” Kiara Rolen, senior accounting student at UT Tyler, said in an interview over the phone.
Rolen works in residential life on campus as a resident advisor. When the campus shut down, she and her coworkers stayed on campus for the remainder of the semester. When dining dollars began to run out and the campus seemed lifeless, the Patriot Pantry remained open for those who stayed on campus.
“Whenever COVID hit, and my meal plan ran out, there was no dining dollar service or anything like that,” Rolen said. “I went over there, and I got ramen noodles and just got things I could cook inside my apartment to keep nourished without having to go to the store all the time.”
“We knew that students would be staying over the break because not everyone was able to go home,” Director of Student Engagement Joshua Neaves said in a phone interview, “International students, students who didn’t have Wi-Fi or it was more dangerous for students to go home given the situation.”
Canned goods, nonperishable snacks and other food items line the shelves in the pantry. The pantry also provides toiletries like toothbrushes, feminine hygiene products and toilet paper. For students or community members with babies, the pantry also offers baby items like formula.
Since it opened in the spring of 2018, the pantry has helped around 412 people throughout the UT Tyler community. Because of the pandemic, staff over the Patriot Pantry had to adjust how the pantry functions.
“During the school year, we have set hours, but in these times, we’ve just been by appointment because we can’t keep someone staffed over there,” Assistant Director of Student Engagement Camry Tharp said in an interview over the phone.
Before COVID-19, the pantry required people to fill out a questionnaire before arriving to the pantry. The questionnaire helped staff ensure that a fair amount of food was given to those in need based on the information provided.
To allow individuals easier access to the pantry, staff changed the protocol. At first, people were required to send an email or call to request an appointment. To ensure the safety of staff and students, the staff would then prepare to-go bags for the students to pick up.
“As word got out that we were doing that, we saw a high volume of appointments being set up, so we kind of shifted to what I would call phase two,” Neaves said.
The pantry established times at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. for pickup. Prior to arriving, students would contact the pantry and then contact the police department. The police department would meet them at the pantry to give them their bag of food.
Thanks to members in the community like the campus police department and the East Texas Food Bank, the Patriot Pantry has been able to continue operation during the pandemic.
When the staff returned in May, they decided to take food to the students.
“I’ve done three different drive-thrus at Liberty Landing, which is where all of our summer residents are housed,” Tharp said.
Tharp set up a tent in front of Liberty Landing armed with food available for students to pick up.
“Every single person that I have come into contact with, especially this summer, is so appreciative of us just being able to give,” she said.
“If you count between March and now, including the mobile setups, [we’ve had] almost a hundred visits,” Neaves said.
The staff work diligently to ensure students on campus know about the resources available to them at the Patriot Pantry. Still, many students do not know about the Patriot Pantry.
“My specific goal for the pantry is just to raise awareness about it because I want students to know that it’s there.” Tharp said.
Tharp is currently working on a promo video for the pantry to raise awareness about the services they provide.
“I’m just trying to educate students to know that it’s there and that it’s a resource for them,” she said. “It’s not something to be embarrassed about.”
Students can help raise awareness as well. While the pantry relies on donations to function, it also relies on students to help get the word out.
“Help spread the word,” Neaves said. “A lot of stuff we talk about at orientation, but we know that students don’t remember everything at orientation or camp.”
If you or someone you or someone you know is in need of the pantry’s assistance, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need immediate assistance, please call Student Engagement at 903-565-5645.