Patriot Pantry quietly cultivates supportive community
Updated: Feb 12
Zoe McGhee • Copy Editor
They're the big blue doors by the library that you normally wouldn’t notice unless someone physically pointed them out to you.
Nestled behind the library in a former coffee shop, these doors have been some students’ saving grace. They're the doors to the Patriot Pantry, the on-campus food pantry started about two years ago that not many are aware of.
After observing the increasing food insecurity on campus in 2017, Vice President for Student Success Ona Tolliver initiated what would become the Patriot Pantry at The University of Texas Tyler.
“[Tolliver] took it to Student Government, and Student Government talked about it, and they were 100% on board,” Director of Student Engagement Joshua Neaves explained. “The next steps were to identify a space, and we had an old coffee shop that wasn’t being used, and the students told us that would be a prime spot for the pantry because its visible but not too visible, in the middle of campus, and a lot of students go to the library.”
Using startup funds provided by the Student Government Association, the unused coffee shop in the Robert R. Muntz Library underwent minor renovations before finally opening in the spring of 2018.
“At the end of every spring semester, we hit a reset button for Student government,” Neaves said. “So we transferred leadership over to the office of leadership and service to make sure that it [Patriot Pantry] continues.”
The Pantry was taken over by Chase Ragland, former assistant director of student engagement, and Administrative Assistant III Laurie Dillman. Ragland recently moved to a new position at The University of North Texas at Dallas, leaving Dillman as the primary coordinator.
“Lauri Dillman and [Ragland] have been the two that have been making this possible,” Neaves said. “They’re not funded by the Pantry, it’s not part of their regular set of responsibilities, so they carve[d] time out of their day throughout the week to go stock it and run it. It’s something that they were both passionate about and enjoyed doing.”
As far as funding goes, besides the SGA startup funds provided in the spring of 2018, there are no institutional or student fees that are being used to support the Patriot Pantry. The primary source of funding comes from student and public donations.
“It is going into an account that’s managed by an institution, but as far as tuition and fees being set aside for this, it’s been zero,” Neaves said. “It’s self-sufficient. It runs itself through the community, and that’s exciting.”
In order to encourage further donations, Ragland and Dillman opened an Elevate UT Tyler campaign, and 28% of the $4,000 goal has already been achieved.
“We created a long-term goal because people would come up to us and say ‘I want to donate financially to the pantry’ and in order to use Elevate we needed to set a goal,” Neaves explained. “We’re just gonna keep that going until we hit it, there’s no deadline, and if in the rare event we start getting low on funds, we’ll start pumping that out.”
The money that is collected through donations is typically used for restocking supplies and putting on donation drives, unless a donor specifies the manner in which they wish the funds to be used.
“We’ll make a Walmart list and use the money that has been donated to buy the items that go into the Pantry,” Dillman said. “We’re over [at the Pantry] so often, so we see the items that go out faster, like protein items, tuna and canned chicken, and that’s what we’ll buy.”
Food and supply donations come from every corner of the UT Tyler and Tyler community, including students, faculty and staff, various student groups, Greek life, and even local churches.
“It’s nice whenever they do Greek Week and Can Castle competitions because they would know in advance that whatever you come out to build your can castle with, that food will be donated to the pantry,” Dillman said excitedly. “So it’s students helping students, and we love to get that. It’s not just the community helping but its fellow students helping students.”
Any food that’s been donated that is expired will be donated to PATH, a local nonprofit organization.
“Because of our NET health guidelines, we can’t give out any food that’s expired,” Dillman explained. “However PATH has a different set of guidelines so if we get stuff that’s expired, we can call them up and they’ll take it because they will still give it out. We as a college campus can’t, but since they can it goes full circle to give back to people that are needing it.”
The Patriot Pantry does not try to reach a monthly number of visitors, but attempts to follow the same guidelines as PATH in regards to how much each student can take out per visit and logs of what students come in.
“As far as the numbers go, we do look at them to determine whether the hours are effective, because if we’re open 8-10 a.m. and no one comes by, we have to ask if that’s really a good time for students,” Neaves explained. “So with the numbers that have been collected from every semester, we are constantly trying to optimize the hours to where we believe that students can take advantage of it. If we ever get to a point that no students are ever visiting, we need to evaluate how we’re communicating, how we’re marketing, because we believe that we do have students on campus that could benefit from it.”
In the Fall of 2019, this past semester, there were 229 total students that visited the Pantry, 117 total students helped and 3,279 items distributed.
Although the numbers prove that the Pantry is making a difference, not many students know very much about it.
“I’ve heard of the pantry, but only found out about it when I walked past them and asked someone about it,” sophomore Ana Fernandez said. “I thought it was really neat. I’m sure it’s a lot of help for students. I’ve thought of actually checking it out, but I don’t really know what the process is to be eligible to use the pantry. Considering I have been refraining from grocery shopping due to financial reasons, I feel like I should definitely seek it out more.”
Other students barely know that it exists, crediting the lack of knowledge to lack of marketing.
“I know that it’s in the library and that it’s a great source for students,” junior Ainslee Barr explained. “But that’s all I really know because of other people. I haven’t seen any advertisements at all.”
Despite the seemingly insufficient ads, the Pantry is open to anyone and everyone who needs it.
“Anyone is more than welcome to walk in while we’re there,” Dillman said. “If we’re not there, they are more than welcome to call the office and we can meet them there if it’s outside of pantry hours. Email us, call, whichever. We do require whoever uses it, students, faculty and staff, to fill out an intake form so we have that little bit of knowledge. We let them know that that information is confidential, but it kinda helps us get to know who’s there.”
Because of the negative stigma that can surround food pantries, students are welcome to call and request certain accommodations.
“If they want to send a friend, a friend can do it for them, or they can send an email and we can prepare a bag and they can come by and grab the bag here, no questions asked,” Neaves said. “We try to set up multiple ways where if the student feels uncomfortable, just like we would with our normal operations here, make sure that there’s every opportunity possible to provide that support.”
The Pantry won’t stop helping students anytime soon, and are already implementing and introducing new ideas for the current and upcoming semesters.
“The goal for this semester is to try and increase the awareness, especially since we changed the hours,” Neaves said. “I think often students either forget about it, or they simply just don’t know about it. So we’re just going to continue to advertise and raise awareness.”
Along with the hopeful increase in advertising, there are new aspects of the Patriot Pantry that will potentially take place in upcoming semesters.
“We have the food part of our pantry and we have the hygiene part of our pantry where we carry a lot of toothpaste, toothbrushes and stuff like that, but we also considered possibly becoming a clothes closet,” Dillman explained. “A place where there could be donations for clothes, extra t-shirts that departments have that they don’t have anything to do with. It’s still in the making, but I’d like to keep the ball moving forward on something like that.”
The Patriot Pantry has been quietly serving the community of UT Tyler for about two years, eagerly pushing for more student awareness, and even more community involvement.
“This is my fifth institution to be at, and out of all the institutions I’ve been at, we have one of the largest, nicest pantries I’ve ever seen,” Neaves said. “I’m always excited for the good work that we’ve been doing, and when I go to other college campuses and see them working out of a closet smaller than this office, it’s pretty powerful that we’ve got a good community that is supportive of one another. It’s not costing us hardly anything and I’m grateful that our students care for one another and that’s pretty cool.”
Anyone who wishes to utilize or donate to the Patriot Pantry can visit the website, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Student Engagement at (903) 565-5645. The new working hours are Monday through Friday from 2:30-4:30 p.m.