June 12, 2024

How Smokey’s Pantry is handling pandemic challenges

Smokey’s Pantry has provided for the UT community since its start in 2016. See how it’s fairing under pandemic challenges.

Photo of the entrance to Smokey's Pantry on Melrose Place.

Thanksgiving is around the corner and we can smell the turkey in the air. Soon tables will be filled with delicious feasts and families will gather together to celebrate. However, not everybody has this opportunity.

Over 821 million people struggle with food insecurity, going days without food or are severely undernourished. Many students, not only at UT but around the world also face this problem. Specifically, students who are on their own for the first time and do not have access to food, proper resources or the ability to acquire them.

The University of Tennessee prides itself on being a school full of Vols that embodies the Volunteer spirit. Therefore, it comes as no surprise the university has a way to combat food insecurity here on campus.

Smokey’s Pantry has been serving the UT community since January 2016. Smokey’s Pantry is a free resource for students on campus in need of food and various hygiene items. The Pantry is also available to faculty, staff and members of the surrounding community and is located on Melrose Place right next to Massey Hall. The Pantry is just a short walk from Hess, Fred Brown, Clement and more residence halls.

The pantry is a collaboration of student government, the Tyson House, which consists of Lutheran and Episcopalian campus ministry and FISH. FISH Hospitality Pantries are based in East Tennessee and serve communities by providing food and goods. They also support local pantries, such as Smokey’s Pantry, and deliver food to over 21,000 people in need a month.

Challenges and Changes

Smokey’s pantry offers distribution hours, to provide goods to those in need, every Tuesday from 4 p.m to 6 p.m. However, the way they operate is a little bit different this year due to COVID-19.

Caitlynne Fox is a UTK Tyson house Administrator and the director of Smokey’s Pantry. She explained how the pantry is operating in these trying times.

“Now, we are operating exclusively outside,” Fox said.

The pantry is already a small and tight space that allows for little to no social distancing. Therefore the members and volunteers of the pantry have had to get creative in deciding how to meet safety guidelines while still providing much-needed supplies to the community. Normally, guests would be able to enter the pantry and peruse the shelves, like a grocery store and get what they need within the limits. This not only provided guests with the ability to choose their own food but it also helped those with dietary restrictions.

“COVID-19 hasn’t necessarily made things harder for distribution, just requiring more creativity in how we distribute food,” Fox said.

Now the pantry bags non-perishable items before hand and allows guests to choose what hygiene and perishables they would like, but they are not allowed to closely examine nor touch the goods. Each guest receives the pre-packed bag as well as the items they safely chose. All of this happens outside to lower the risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

Pantry coordinators are working to revise this system for next semester as the weather will be too cold for volunteers to remain outside throughout their shifts. Sign-ups to volunteer with Smokey’s Pantry are found on the JCLS sign-up-to-serve calendar.

The pantry is also always accepting donations of hygiene products of all kinds and non-perishable goods such as peanut butter, pasta sauces, canned meat, soups and more. The pantry also accepts monetary donations to cover staffing and advertising costs.

A Pantry for a Community

Smokey’s Pantry helps about 20 to 30 student families each week and by the end of the semester will have served about 260-390 student families in need.

Fox shared her most rewarding experience of directing the pantry.

“I always look forward to partnering with student and community organizations to educate about food insecurity, run food and hygiene drive, and host volunteer opportunities,” Fox said. “It is always rewarding to educate people of food security and how impacts college students differently than other populations.”

Everyone is welcome at Smokey’s Pantry and does not need to provide qualifying information such as financial status or IDs. The pantry also offers limited private appointments to those who cannot attend the Tuesday distribution.

The Bigger Picture

COVID-19 has affected food pantries and banks across the nation. Food banks have seen dramatic increases in the number of families in need of food due to pandemic shutdowns, challenges and more. From March to June alone, food banks distributed more than 1.9 billion meals across the country. In March, the need for food banks increased by 20%nation wide. Feeding America estimates the pandemic will ultimately end with one in six Americans struggling with hunger.

The closing of schools in addition to increased demand in grocery stores due to panic buying in the earlier stages of the virus contributed immensely to this growth. Many children depended on school for food and nourishment and bulk buying forced grocery stores and providers to increase prices.

The CDC offered a guide for food banks and pantries to navigate the virus while still providing desperately needed supplies to American families.

Many have recognized the need for support of food pantries in this time such as Mr.Beast, a YouTube phenomenon. Mr.Beast, also known as Jimmy Donaldson, donated 1 million dollars of food to banks in his home state of North Carolina.

Mr.Beast has also secured a warehouse to open his own food bank and created an additional YouTube channel where 100% of proceeds go towards the food bank.

For more information about Smokey’s Pantry, visit their website to gain access to contact information, donation information and more.



Edited by Ryan Sylvia and Donna Mitchell

Featured Photo By Gracie-Lee Strange 

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