Stocked & Reddie, the food pantry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), has been helping university students and employees gain access to healthy food for about a year. But its membership—and operating practices—went through some big changes when the coronavirus crisis hit this spring.
Prior to the pandemic, the pantry had around 750 active members who would shop for food, and in exchange, spend time volunteering by stocking the pantry shelves or helping other members check out with their groceries. Those numbers swelled as COVID-related job losses hit the UAMS, the surrounding Little Rock community and Arkansas at large. “We’ve seen an increase in membership by 300 UAMS employees, with an additional 1,200 people being fed on a regular basis,” says UAMS Director of Nutrition Services Tonya Johnson, MS, RD, LD, CNSC.
The pantry quickly took on another 437 members from nearby Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “The hospital reached out because they didn’t have a food pantry and were seeing a need due to school closures and job loss.”
Two students shop for food after a volunteer shift.
Stocked & Reddie had the resources to support more members. “Our local food distributors for campus, both have seen a decrease in sales with restaurant closures, so we’ve been able to get a significant amount of produce from them,” Johnson says. “We’ve also partnered with some farmers’ markets, and our local produce company is willing to donate produce that’s on the bubble, with a three-day shelf life.” The pantry also diverts leftovers from UAMS retail areas to make grab-and-go meals.
Volunteers to run the pantry are also in ample supply. “Most of them are actual members of Stocked & Reddie, including students and UAMS employees, so it’s a giveback,” Johnson says. Some community members, including a handful of retired doctors, also come to lend a hand.
But when it came to getting food and supplies to its members, social distancing meant the pantry had to get creative in how items were distributed. Rather than having members come into shop, Johnson set up a drive-thru system with tents for produce, dry goods, and personal hygiene and cleaning supplies. Members drive-thru both sides of each tent and tell masked volunteers what items they want. “We bag everything up and hand them the bag. They don’t get out of their car,” Johnson says.
Stocked & Reddie also launched a home delivery service for UAMS employees who are isolated at home. “We were having a significant amount of employees being sent home on 14-day quarantine due to exposure,” Johnson says. “Within a week of the need arising, we launched the delivery program.” Stocked & Reddie volunteers reach out to individuals to find out what food they need, along with other supplies like prescription and over-the-counter medications, toiletries, diapers or cleaning supplies. “We had funding from UAMS Medical Center Auxiliary, so I set up an account with a nearby grocery store to get those items,” Johnsons says. A campus-based women’s health program donates feminine hygiene kits at no cost to Johnson.
The items are boxed up and brought to quarantined employees weekly by volunteer drivers, using two vans from UAMS’s currently closed daycare. “They put the box of supplies on the porch and ask the recipient not to come out until they leave,” Johnson says. “We average about 50 home deliveries a week.”
COVID-19 has expanded Stocked & Reddie’s reach to other parts of Arkansas, too. “UAMS has satellite clinics in poor, rural areas of the state that don’t have their own food pantries,” Johnson explains. To ensure employees and patients have access to food and supplies, the pantry now delivers boxes of food and supplies to 11 regional clinics on a weekly basis. “The clinics are in charge of distributing the boxes to those who need them,” says Johnson. To date, the outreach project has served 17,640 meals to more than 2,500 employees and their family members.
Throughout the crisis, Johnson has seen firsthand how Stocked & Reddie is making a difference in people’s lives. “The change that all this has caused, we’re seeing people who once had to choose between food and gas are able to come to work, their attendance is better,” she says. And since the pantry focuses on healthy foods like fresh produce and low-fat dairy, members are continuing to eat nutritious fare instead of relying on empty, inexpensive calories.
As for the future? “We recently had two new COVID hotspots identified,” Johnson says. “As long as there’s a need, we’ll continue to meet demands.”