Students Serving Students

Penn State’s Lion’s Pantry is helping provide sustenance to students in need while also offering opportunities for leadership and professional development.

Tiana Williams’ journey to becoming president of the Lion’s Pantry—Penn State’s student food bank—started with a meal.

Williams, a junior studying community, environment, and development in the College of Agricultural Sciences and a self-identified foodie with a love of sushi and curry, has experienced food insecurity at various times throughout her life.

“This issue hits me personally because last year I was one of the students who used the food pantry to make sure I was eating every day,” Williams said. “After my own experiences with the organization and from seeing the positive benefits it had on other students’ lives, I knew I wanted the pantry to continue to be a success. I had no real plans to do it, but on a whim, I applied to be president.”

“After my own experiences with the organization and from seeing the positive benefits it had on other students’ lives, I knew I wanted the pantry to continue to be a success." —Tiana Williams, president of Lion's Pantry 

One year later, she’s stepped up to the challenge of overseeing both pantry operations and the affiliated student organization at University Park.

Across the nation, more than one third of college students—often low-income and first-generation students—struggle to afford food, according to a recent report. For some, food insecurity means skipping or stretching meals, not having access to nutritious food, or being uncertain about where their next meal will come from—which can have academic, health, emotional, and social consequences.

With growing awareness of food insecurity on college campuses, students and employees at universities across the country are stocking the shelves of their own pantries. Today, there are more than 650 college food pantries registered in the United States with the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

With dozens of volunteers, general student club members, and an executive board, Lion’s Pantry is a place where students in need with a valid Penn State ID can pick up a range of nutritious food items, toiletries and more—everything from granola bars to shampoo—no questions asked.

“Food insecurity is invisible and doesn’t always get talked about, which is why it’s so important that we have this resource at Penn State,” Williams said. “You can’t look at a person and know they're not eating enough or not eating nutritiously, so there’s still a lot of stigma that comes with saying ‘I’m hungry.’ Our mission is to raise awareness, increase community engagement, and educate students about the services we offer and let them know we’re here to help.”

A Community-Driven Service

At Penn State, Lion’s Pantry got its start in 2014 thanks to a small group of students who wanted to provide sustenance to students experiencing hunger.

Open on Tuesdays and Fridays, the pantry relies on community donations to stock its shelves with non-perishable food items, ranging from canned vegetables, breakfast items, snacks, pasta, and grains to household products. Each week, volunteers who staff the pantry welcome about thirty visitors.

“The Lion’s Pantry has received support from various University groups, but it wouldn’t be here without students." —Emily Javitt, Lion's Pantry adviser

Over the years, the student organization has partnered with several groups throughout the University and in the State College community, including the College of Agricultural Sciences, University Park Undergraduate Association, Sustainability Institute, Abba Java Coffeehouse, Housing and Food Services, Student Affairs, Residence Life, and other student clubs like Project Cahir and Global Brigades. In 2017, the senior class gift endowed the pantry to make a permanent, annual source of funding available to support future generations of Penn Staters.

“The Lion’s Pantry has received support from various University groups, but it wouldn’t be here without students,” said Emily Javitt, adviser for the Lion's Pantry. “It says a lot about their dedication to service that the pantry was not only founded by students, but that it’s still completely student-led. I love watching them become passionate about an area beyond their majors, gain a new skill-set running a non-profit, and expand their empathy toward others.”

As part of Penn State’s service mission, students engage in rich learning opportunities outside the classroom, which have a beneficial impact on the University and local communities across the state. In addition to the pantry at University Park, many other Penn State campuses offer similar facilities, including at Mont Alto, Behrend, and Berks. At Penn State Beaver and Greater Allegheny, students are also working to promote sustainable, local food systems by planting community gardens.

Sayre Bradley, vice president of Lion’s Pantry and a junior majoring in statistics, got involved with the club as a freshman through Penn State’s Fresh START Day of Service. Three years later, she spends her days coordinating events, volunteer schedules, and logistics.

“I’m from a rural town in Pennsylvania where there are a lot of families living below the poverty line, so food security has always been important to me,” Bradley said. “At Penn State, I’m proud to be part of this amazing organization and to be able to help my fellow students. We want people to come in and feel comfortable and welcomed and never ashamed. Part of our goal is to reduce stigma around this nationwide issue.”

Looking to the Future

For both Bradley and Williams, growing the Lion’s Pantry and setting it up for long-term success after they graduate is their shared mission.

As president, Williams has focused on expanding the executive team and creating new roles like pantry director (a position she’s looking forward to taking on her senior year). While more students are involved than ever before, she hopes even more will join as general body club members in the coming year to staff events—like this spring’s successful “Canstruction” event—and to build a network of supporters throughout campus.

A male and two female students build a structure made entirely out of canned goods.

Canstruction Event

Held in the HUB-Robeson Center, Canstruction is a two-day event that challenges Penn State student organizations to build structures made entirely out of cans. As a means for raising awareness of the food pantry and engaging the student body around the issue of hunger, items used as part of the event are donated to the Lion's Pantry. 

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Although Lion’s Pantry has more students involved than ever before, club leaders hope to expand its volunteer base, implement strategic systems for tracking donations and volunteer hours, and expand the pantry’s offerings.

Along with opening new CUB pantries and expanding food offerings, including gluten-free and international items, the club is currently in the process of implementing new processes for keeping track of the amounts of donations received, food donated, volunteer hours, and number of visitors to inform future strategic planning.

As she wraps up her presidency, Williams recognizes the role Lion’s Pantry has played in cementing her own professional goals and preparing her to one day open a non-profit organization focused on urban gardening and nutrition.

“Since high school, I’ve been interested in the food system in America, and specifically making sure everybody has the same access to fresh affordable food and produce regardless of race or socioeconomic status,” Williams said. “It’s been a learning curve, but as president, I’ve learned about what a leader looks like and most importantly who I am as a leader.”

While at University Park, she’s also worked toward her goals by participating in internships at the Student Farm and at an urban garden in her hometown of Philadelphia through Penn State Extension. This summer, she’ll take a break from her job at Pollock Dining Commons to conduct research with the University’s Center for Community and Economic Development, which focuses on creating opportunities for people throughout Pennsylvania.

For Williams, securing food justice for others will continue be her life’s work long after graduation.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed in my life and being able to help other students feels like something I’m supposed to do—it's more than a line on my résumé,” she said. “With Lion’s Pantry, I’m most proud of committing to something that’s challenging. It’s hard work. I don’t always know the answers, but I know it’s on me to make a difference.”

Summer at the Lion's Pantry

This summer, the Lion’s Pantry is partnering with New Student Orientation (NSO) to collect donations from the Class of 2023. Incoming students can start their Penn State experiences by making a difference in their new community by bringing a non-perishable food item or toiletry to NSO.

Lion’s Pantry will continue to stock its shelves and will be open during normal hours on Tuesdays and Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m. in between Lion’s Surplus and the Blue Band Building on Services Road. To pick up items, students can also schedule an appointment to visit the pantry or submit an online food order to be picked up at Abba Java Coffeehouse by emailing lionspantrypsu@gmail.com.

For more information about the Lion’s Pantry, including how to donate, volunteer, or join the club, visit thelionspantry.psu.edu.