The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

Behind the shelves of the Panther Pantry

The Panther Pantry offers more than food to students – offering tampons, dental dams, and other hygiene products.

Nestled in the basement of Maucker Union is a small room making a big impact on the UNI community. The Panther Pantry, founded in January 2019, offers free food and basic necessities for enrolled students, providing assistance for students who lack access to enough food.

The Pantry is run primarily by student volunteers and two paid undergraduate students. Tienna Trettin, a student volunteer for the Panther Pantry, got involved last semester and said the Pantry is a “crucial” resource for students.

“With the continuous rise in tuition and living expenses, it can be exhausting for students to manage these financial pressures while pursuing their education,” Trettin said. “The Pantry plays a role in alleviating both financial and food-related stress while providing essential support to thousands of students.”

Mari Fox, an undergraduate employed by the Panther Pantry, said students who need to access the Panther Pantry can do so Monday through Thursday from noon to 4:30 p.m. Students will need to bring their student ID or know their ID number to check out their items. For those intimidated about using the Pantry, Fox said a volunteer will be available to answer any questions.

“Our volunteers are all super welcoming, and you’ll quickly get comfortable,” Fox said. “If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask at all.”

Items stocking the shelves of the Pantry include canned fruits and vegetables, soup, pastas, beans, rice, cereal, personal care items and cleaning supplies. In 2023 alone, the Pantry experienced 1,960 total visits from students, with 11,759 outgoing pounds of food and necessities.  In order to track incoming and outgoing necessities, they weigh every item to alleviate waste. 

We’re here to help. Everybody deserves food, and everybody should have access to food.

— Rhonda McBride, Program Development Manager Northeast Iowa Food Bank

While the Pantry is not intended to be a fully stocked grocery store, it is intended to help “fill the gaps” according to UNI’s Associate Director of Student Involvement and advisor for the Panther Pantry,  Connie Hansen. She also said tracking the items is a key part of operating the Pantry.

“We always think about how we can be good stewards of our products, so we’re not throwing them out,” Hansen said. “It helps us be better stewards of what we need to insource into the pantry.”

While the Pantry receives some funding from the university, they heavily rely on donations from the community. Hansen said they often receive donations from student organizations who host food drives, and also get donations from community organizations and private donors.

Beyond donations, the Pantry also buys items from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank for nineteen cents a pound, or at a discounted rate. Rhonda McBride, the Program Development Manager for the food bank said collaborating with the Pantry has been rewarding for the organization.

“We really wanted to make an impact, especially on campus,” McBride said. “We know that college students especially seem to be an underrepresented population to get some services. We want to make sure that everyone throughout northeast Iowa has good access to food.”

McBride went on to say providing food on campus is crucial for student success.

“We don’t want hunger to become a challenge that is going to cause problems. When you’re hungry, you’re going to be worrying about how to get food instead of how to get ready for an exam,” McBride said. “We just want people to know that there’s no shame in it. The Pantry is there for a reason.”

For additional necessities that donations or the food bank cannot fulfill, volunteers will purchase items in bulk at the Dollar Tree or Sam’s Club.  Recently, on one of these Dollar Tree runs, an anonymous woman covered the cost of their items. 

“I didn’t even know how to react. I was so shook,” Hansen said. “She just handed us $200. I was so overwhelmed, I felt so incredibly blessed. She didn’t even ask for a thank you. She probably doesn’t even realize how she’s going to impact students here. It made my heart so full.”

While some students may feel hesitant to use the Pantry, McBride encourages those who need assistance to visit.

“The best thing is to remember that there’s no shame,” McBride said. “The Pantry is there to help individuals, whether it be on a regular basis or once in a while. We’re here to help. Everybody deserves food, and everybody should have access to food.”

For Trettin, who has been an RA the past three years, has been able to inform her residents how to use the Pantry. The UNI chapter of National Residence Hall Honorary (NRHH) has been collaborating with the Panther Pantry for the past couple of years, placing drop-off boxes in residence halls.

“Our organization (NRHH) focuses on two pillars: service and recognition, and working with the Panther Pantry perfectly aligned with this mission,” Trettin said. “So many of my residents have utilized the Pantry and said it has brought them relief. Our advisor, Jordan Rockwell, said that our organization has been collaborating with the Pantry for a few years now and it has been a great success. It has been awesome to see students engage in helping other students and nurturing a culture of service here at UNI.”

Hansen said she thinks the Pantry has become “an important part of the fabric of our campus,” and is here to stay. Looking forward, they are hoping to relocate to a more accessible location from their current spot in the basement of Maucker. They are also wanting to purchase an industrial sized freezer and refrigerator to buy more items in bulk.

Hansen said she has no doubt the generosity of the UNI community will sustain the Panther Pantry for years to come, and in her 30 year career working for various departments at UNI, leading the Panther Pantry has been a particularly impactful experience.

“I think the Pantry has opened my eyes to unconditional care for students,” Hansen said. “I hope that our students understand there’s a lot of people contributing to make sure their experience here is a good one.”

Hansen continued,  “The behind the scenes isn’t always glamorous, but it’s super rewarding. Because at the end, you’re really helping people.”

For Trettin, the Panther Pantry is special due to its inclusive nature, and she encourages anyone interested in volunteering for the Pantry to email advisors Connie Hansen or Josh Farris. 

“Regardless of one’s identity, or circumstances, everyone is encouraged to take things from the Pantry,” Trettin said. “Plus, the environment is always welcoming, with a team of compassionate individuals who are committed to making sure no student goes to bed hungry.”

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