Shawn’s Cupboard Combats Food Insecurity

Shawn Dousis ’19, the food pantry’s namesake, helped to grow Shawn’s Cupboard after developing a passion for addressing food insecurity.

Research has shown that college students are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity in America, with up to half of them lacking consistent access to food. At Eastern Connecticut State University, a team of collaborators is taking strides toward solving this problem with the launch of Shawn’s Cupboard, a free, on-campus food pantry that welcomes all students.

Over the past two semesters, Geography Professor Patrick Vitale has investigated the prevalence of food insecurity at Eastern through his “Geography of Food” course. His students have developed surveys, conducted interviews and utilized existing research to better understand the issue. Their studies found that 14 percent out of 695 Eastern students have what the United States Department of Agriculture defines as “very low” food security. Of students with very low food security, 32 percent went an entire day without eating in the past year.

Vitale’s students also discovered a direct connection between food insecurity and student performance in and outside the classroom. Food insecurity correlates with negative impacts on grades, graduation rates and participation in campus life.

“Patrick’s class was key in finding the statistics we needed to prove our students suffered with food insecurity and grabbed the university’s attention,” said Shawn Dousis ’19, the pantry’s namesake and president of the Campus Ministry, the organization that jumpstarted the project. Dousis handles social media, organizes volunteers and seeks community donations for the cupboard.

“When I was told two years ago that Eastern had a pantry, I took it upon myself to try and build it up,” Dousis explained, who majors in elementary education and liberal studies. Surprised to learn that such a place existed on campus, she was eager to move the project beyond its developing stages. “Little did I know so many people would become part of the team!”

Other driving forces behind the pantry include Father Larry Lapointe and Nancy Brennan of the Campus Ministry, in addition to Kim Silcox, director of the Center for Community Engagement.

“Working with the cupboard has enriched my class and is one of the most rewarding parts of my work at Eastern,” said Vitale. While his students get a small amount of extra credit for their volunteer hours, most do it solely because they care about getting involved, and leave with new insights. “In the process of working there they learn a lot about food insecurity at the university and how the cupboard operates,” said Vitale. “This often informs their final projects in the class. For example, several of the volunteers are developing surveys of students who use the cupboard and others are developing promotional materials of various sorts.”

“I’ve managed to schedule more than 20 student volunteers throughout the week, most sitting in for one to two hours at a time,” said Dousis. “They are expected to log their own hours, stock donations, sign off on people who come in for food and organize the fridge and shelves. We are constantly encouraging them to promote the cupboard and making sure they see how important their volunteer time is.”

Dousis is passionate about combatting food insecurity for numerous reasons, such as witnessing friends and family who have suffered from it. The most significant motivator, however, is knowing the severity of the issue and how little has been done about it across the nation. “It’s both frustrating and inspiring to attend workshops and conferences and hear about other food pantries. I want to take all I’ve learned, with what I continue to learn, and implement it here at Eastern. Raising awareness and helping Eastern students every day is extremely rewarding.”

Vitale hopes that Shawn’s Cupboard will transform into a space that will allow students to organize and support one another. “It should be a place where students not only can get food, but also recognize and work to overcome common struggles,” he said. “Right now our shared vision is driven by immediate concerns of making sure students are informed and that we have enough food.”

Donations are encouraged, particularly food that requires minimal preparation, such as granola bars, microwave popcorn, macaroni and cheese, canned soup and peanut butter.

Dousis sees the cupboard eventually being able to house more perishable items, and similarly wants it to be somewhere that people are comfortable using it freely. She noted that partnering with outside organizations and actively promoting programs of this nature will assist in its success. The Swipe It Forward program at Eastern, for instance, grants five free dining hall meals to students per semester. Michelle Delaney, dean of students, can be contacted at delaneymi@easternct.edu for more information.

Shawn’s Cupboard is open at its main location, the Knight House, at the following hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday; 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday; 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday.

Food donations can me made during the operating hours of Shawn’s Cupboard, or during the hours of these locations: Newman Hall, 290 Prospect Street in Willimantic from 4-6 p.m. on Thursday; the Center for Community Engagement from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Monday to Friday; Webb Hall Room 325 from 2:45 to 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday and 1:45 to 3:45 p.m. on Thursday.

Monetary donations are appreciated as well and can be made out to the Foundation for Campus Ministry with a notation that the funds are for Shawn’s Cupboard. The Cupboard is staffed entirely by volunteers and is available to any member of the Eastern community.

Written by Jordan Corey