Two years into the OU Food Pantry’s operation on campus, some volunteers feel the organization’s ability to grow and serve the community is stalling due to financial and administrative issues.
The pantry, which opened in late February 2017, is managed by a steering committee of faculty and staffed by students, some of whom say that lack of access to finances and lack of physical space is holding back the pantry’s potential.
The pantry is currently serving 50 to 70 people each week, said graduate director Matt Marks, and while it has faced donation shortages in the past, is currently in good financial standing. Though the pantry has a solid donation base, the student volunteers who run the organization on a daily basis can’t access it, said Claire Funk, a nutrition junior and the pantry’s donations director.
While the daily operations of the pantry are lead by students, the administrative functions, including funding, are handled through OU Housing & Food. Housing & Food gives the pantry a monthly allowance from donations held within the OU Foundation, but Funk said students don’t have access to much information about their financials or ability to withdraw money themselves.
“Because we're through Housing & Food and the OU Foundation, we have no idea how many monetary donations we're getting — they won't tell us,” said Brittnie Camper, a exercise science junior and a member of the pantry’s donations team. “We know how many physical donations we've been given of food, but we have no clue how many donations we've gotten in just dollars.”
Pantry donations are held under the OU Foundation so the pantry can maintain its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and continue partnering with the Regional Food Bank, where it purchases much of its food, Funk said.
While the pantry could form its own 501(c)(3) and come out from under the foundation, the process would be lengthy and complicated for students, Funk said.
“Right now we like are kind of forced into using (Housing & Food), but then they also get to decide when and where and why we can use all of the money, even though they insist constantly that we are a student-led team and have full autonomy over everything,” Funk said.
Housing & Food staff and steering committee members did not respond to requests for comment about pantry operations, but directed comment to Marks. Marks said he’s able to request and view financial statements concerning the pantry, but also has no access to donations.
But Marks said he’s able to order as much as he needs for the pantry each month, and understands why Housing & Food places restrictions on spending.
“I mean we all wish we could just immediately go and have a card and, and do whatever we want, but I know those are rules in place — it makes sense,” Marks said. “You have to have people to overlook and make sure that no one's extorting money.”
Emily Sharp, a recent graduate in mechanical engineering and film and media studies and pantry volunteer coordinator, said having pantry business run through Housing & Food means that when the pantry needs items not provided by donations or the Regional Food Bank, those needs are not easily addressed.
Sharp has sometimes purchased pantry necessities like cleaning supplies with her own money.
“It feels to me that (Housing & Food has) a hold of our money but, what can we actually do with it?” Sharp said. “...Right now we have set up where we buy most stuff from the Regional Food Bank to be ordered from that, or we get donations, so there's... a lot of gaps in terms of food, and if the purpose of this pantry is to serve our students and to give them nutritional food, we can't get all that.”
Funk said she’s proposed spending solutions to the pantry’s steering committee, like the committee giving student pantry directors a prepaid card each month to handle costs.
During a recent steering committee meeting in which Funk and other volunteers brought up their concerns, she said the committee told students they were too irresponsible to track pantry expenses, and the current campus climate was “not favorable” to financial change.
“Their whole thing is, Gallogly is trying to save money or whatever, so it's not favorable for us to be doing this,” Funk said. “But these are donations to feed our students.”
Many of the steering committee members are not a regular part of the pantry’s daily operations, Sharp and Funk said, and don’t see the everyday needs and processes of the organization.
Funk said there’s no single Housing & Food employee who handles food pantry finances, so many requests from food pantry volunteers — like a recent initiative to bring fresh produce to the pantry — are not handled quickly.
The pantry received the donations to purchase fresh produce — which is not supplied by the Regional Food Bank — in early 2019, but the program was only implemented a few weeks before the spring semester’s end.
“We didn't get fresh produce until this week,” Funk said May 5. “And when I asked (the steering committee) about it, they just said that they just dropped the ball, they just forgot about it, basically. Which is crazy because you can't just forget about things like giving fresh fruits and vegetables to people who need to eat, you know?”
Marks said he takes “some responsibility” for having forgotten to get the produce program started.
Sharp said some of these administrative issues seem to stem from faculty and administration’s idea that the pantry should be student-led rather than having dedicated overseers within Housing & Food.
“From my own perspective, I think… we don't have to be student-led,” Sharp said. “I think it'd be great if you had someone in Housing & Food that this was part of their job.”
Alongside financial constraints, some volunteers are feeling the constraints of the pantry’s location.
The pantry currently operates out of a room tucked away in the back of a complex off Elm Street and filled with shelves and freezers. The space can fill up quickly during the pantry’s limited hours, Marks said.
“When we grow in numbers, it gets packed, and we've had times in there where — Tuesdays seems like we are our busiest days and right when we open, we'll have people either waiting outside or when they come in,” Marks said. “We'd have maybe 20 people before packed in that small space and they can't move around very well at all.”
The space also sometimes loses heating or air conditioning, Funk said, making it difficult to safely store food. While pantry volunteers were looking to move to a larger space, and had the idea approved by Housing & Food, the steering committee eventually told volunteers a move would be too costly.
Sharp says she thinks the pantry can, for now, improve the space it occupies with updated equipment, but that overall communication and flow between all food pantry entities should be improved first.
“I think moving is secondary to letting us have control over our money so that we can buy the essentials that we need,” Sharp said.
The pantry will continue to operate and serve the community as it currently does, but Funk said lack of space and financial issues will mean the pantry has to turn people away.
“It's great that we're able to serve the people that we are, but there are so many other people that need our help,” Funk said, “and it's honestly just ridiculous that these constraints keeping put on us because what's the priority if you're not invested in making sure that your students and staff are well fed?"