Tucked away in Suite 704 of the University Union, student beneficiaries enter a safe and relieving space. Filled with supplies of food and hygiene products, students sign in and begin browsing the shelves. While some grab cans or boxes of food, others select personal products like shampoo, all for free.
Clemson University’s on-campus initiative to reduce food insecurity and promote well-being at Clemson, the Paw Pantry, is student-run and student-led. The pantry is available to all Clemson University students, free of charge, with no questions asked. As a solidarity-based approach to combating hunger on campus, students complete a simple form once per semester and are free to use Paw Pantry services for the rest of their time at Clemson.
A national report from the Urban Institute last year estimated 17 percent of households with students attending four-year colleges experience food insecurity – defined as not having reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. A survey released last May by Temple University stated that 45 percent of student respondents from more than 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days.
Emily Blackshire founded the Paw Pantry in 2015 when she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in language and international health with concentrations in Spanish and community development. She graduated in 2017 and now attends the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“Paw Pantry has shaped my career. I knew I wanted to do something related to public service when I got to Clemson,” she said recently. “The more I learned about students who needed access to resources, the more I wanted to focus on improving the effects of intergenerational poverty on individuals and communities.”
Blackshire is studying to become a public defender and work alongside defendants who are facing criminal charges that often are directly related to poverty. She spends much of her time at the Richland County Public Defender’s Office connecting clients to local resources, not unlike the connections between students who use the Paw Pantry are making with organizations in the Upstate.
Seeing friends experience food insecurity and homelessness during her time at Clemson, she made a plea for more resources.
“The Paw Pantry got started after a friend disclosed to me that she was working her way through Clemson but ultimately could barely afford food… She didn’t have the strong social network that many students have,” Blackshire said. “I thought a lot about the idea of the ‘Clemson family’ and figured that the least that our family could do was provide a cushion and meet some of those basic needs for students like my friend.”
Blackshire did research and visited other student food pantries throughout the Southeast, including one at the University of South Carolina. Then she worked with Clemson administrators to secure space, acquire donations and select the members of the first Paw Pantry board.
“We knew early on that it would be important to have models for success if we were going to present the idea of an on-campus food and hygienic supply pantry to the (university) board of trustees. I made a trip down to Columbia when starting the Paw Pantry as I had no idea what to expect from a by-students-for-students pantry. Volunteers at USC showed me around, answered questions about logistics and spoke on their time commitments each week to make this resource possible to the USC community.”
Connecting with Kate Radford and former Clemson employee Whitney Brown from the Student Involvement and Leadership office helped Blackshire find the staff member advocates she needed.
“We drew up plans based on what I’d seen at the Gamecock Pantry and then visited USC Upstate’s SNAC pantry and UNC’s Carolina Cupboard.” said Blackshire. “We ultimately blended all three pantries’ ideas in order to put together the Paw Pantry, instating a student board of directors and recruiting student volunteers but constantly deferring to Kate and Whitney’s office to make sure we stayed in good rapport with university officials and aligned with university policies.”
Student Involvement and Leadership data indicate that Paw Pantry had 211 total visits and 68 different students in the 2019 spring semester. While official numbers are not yet in for the fall semester, usage appears to be up.
Some students have utilized Paw Pantry all of their years on campus, “It’s really convenient to have a quasi grocery store on campus, especially when the alternative is bussing to to a grocery store,” said a Paw Pantry beneficiary.
The Paw Pantry refers students to other agencies for additional assistance, including the Office of Access and Equity and Clemson Community Care.
The pantry’s operations are guided by a student board of five undergraduate students: two co-directors, a volunteer coordinator, a donations and drives coordinator, and an educational outreach coordinator. It is open four days a week and is staffed by a team of student volunteers with staff advisers from the office of Student Involvement and Leadership.
Senior Heather Lee hails from Charleston and is pursuing a double major in sociology and psychology while working as co-director of the Paw Pantry. Working with Paw Pantry since her sophomore year, she has put the focus of her studies on homelessness. Lee hopes to work at a nonprofit related to homelessness and hunger issues upon graduation.
“A lot of nitty-gritty goes into it,“ Lee said, describing the pantry’s operations. The work she and co-director Sydney Adam do ranges from contacting community partners like Clemson Community Care and the Office of Inclusion and Equity to managing the pantry during hours of operation.
The Paw Pantry volunteers’ priority now is to work with administrators to fund a permanent and accessible space on campus when the Union is demolished.
The Paw Pantry is open 5-8 p.m. Sunday, 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, 9 a.m.-noon Wednesday and 2-5 p.m. Friday.
Helping the Paw Pantry
Paw Pantry donations are sustained by the Clemson community through local community groups, academic departments and student organizations. If interested in donating to the Paw Pantry, schedule an appointment with the organization so confidentiality can be maintained or fill out their online donation form here. Additionally, you can make a monetary donation here.
To find out how you can become involved in the Paw Pantry or how you might benefit from this growing organization, visit its website, Facebook page. head to Suite 704 of the University Union or call or text 864-372-6879.
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