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CJ's Cupboard tackling food insecurity among Gillings Public Health students

CJ's cupboard, located in McGaveran-Greenberg Hall, is pictured on Sept. 23, 2022.

As the issue of food insecurity continues to impact campus, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health has implemented a resource that aims to help — CJ’s Cupboard. 

CJ’s Cupboard is a food pantry welcome to all Gillings students, located at 2220 McGavran-Greenberg Hall. Amanda Holliday, associate professor of nutrition and manager of CJ’s Cupboard, said she helped start CJ’s after a survey revealed last year that around 9 percent of Gillings students were food insecure. 

The name “CJ’s Cupboard” comes from a combination of the first two letters of Holliday’s grandmothers, both of whom inspired her to pursue nutrition and cooking, Holliday said.

CJ’s Cupboard is overseen by Holliday and Nutrition Coalition, a student organization run by Elizabeth Lo and Heba Akhtar that conducts multiple food-related projects and fundraisers on campus. 

Lo said that, although the University does value the health of students, the rigorous lifestyle of a UNC student can make prioritizing nutrition difficult.

Jessica Soldavini, research specialist for No Kid Hungry NC and the Carolina Hunger Initiative, said food insecurity among college students is an issue that many people have historically overlooked. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies food security levels with four different categories; high, marginal, low and very low. High food security indicates no food accessibility problems, while very low indicates multiple reports of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns.

Soldavini said that, before COVID-19, numbers showed that around 30 percent of students at UNC were food insecure, and an additional 21 percent were marginally food secure. 

“From the outside, college campuses appear to be latent with grab-and-go options, dining halls, fast casual restaurants, and vending machines,”  Maggie Simonds, a student who was involved in the inception of the pantry, said in a statement. “But behind the scenes approximately one in six students are experiencing some degree of food insecurity.”

Soldavini said there is research to show that food insecurity in college students is associated with poor academic outcomes and that food plays an important role in a student’s success.

“You got to have nourishment to learn,” Holliday said.

Soldavini said one contributing factor to the amount of food insecurity across college campuses is the difficulty for college students to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. During the pandemic, students on work-study or with an estimated family contribution of $0 on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) could qualify, but she said those exemptions will soon be ending.

“There's a lot more that needs to be done, not just on a University level, but on a national level in terms of addressing food insecurity,” she said. 

CJ’s Cupboard does not screen to see the level of food security students are experiencing, Holliday said, because food insecurity “ebbs and flows.”

“So we just keep the door unlocked every day, all day and we encourage students to come and go as they would like,” she said. She estimates around 50 to 100 Gillings students visit the pantry every day.

Carolina Cupboard, the campus-wide pantry, typically operates through appointment. Holliday said Carolina Cupboard serves a much larger population than CJ’s and is doing a wonderful job of serving the campus. 

She said the CJ’s pantry also keeps feminine products, toiletries and other household necessities, including clean clothes. 

“So we hear a lot of feedback from women,” Holliday said, “and we've heard a lot of feedback from all undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students about how thankful they are that we have free feminine products.”

Within the food items the pantry keeps, Lo said the most utilized products are the international food options it offers. She said CJ’s tries to stock as many varieties of food as possible to make people with certain cultural preferences feel more at home.

Moving forward with the project, Holliday and Nutrition Coalition have a goal of providing fresh produce within CJ’s and starting gardens around Gillings. 

"So I think more access, having accessible food at a reasonable cost on all parts of campus, in addition to more cupboards would greatly help that population,” Holliday said.

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