Every Tuesday at the Tri-C, around 10 people wearing masks and gloves sort canned food and cereal boxes into 100 bags to serve to the UTA community during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The job can be physically and emotionally demanding but on Thursdays — when the pantry opens to the public — several people in need of food will show up at their doorstep, and they need to be prepared, said Cyndi Needels, Tri-C food pantry director.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the pantry operated biweekly, but Needels decided to change to weekly distributions to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines while still serving the same number of people.
The weekly distributions now run by appointment for six hours in 15-minute intervals instead of the hour and a half biweekly distributions that would cause people to be close together in the center.
Over the past two weeks, the pantry has served about 300 people.
Needels has worked in campus ministry for over 20 years and at UTA’s Tri-C for over seven.
When she started working at the Tri-C, she would put food such as snacks and hot meals on tables for UTA students who would stop by to rest or for something to eat. She later learned some students relied heavily on this resource.
Whenever the holidays came around and the Tri-C was closed, the students would be left without a primary food source. To help them, she and another campus minister decided to take the initiative and put food together for students to take home.
“We just realized that there was a greater need, that we were helping a few students but there was a greater need out there,” Needels said.
With the help of the Tarrant Area Food Bank, the Tri-C food pantry was developed.
The pantry is an approved recipient of the food bank, but building its food store is largely a community effort. Staff and faculty members, departments on campus and local churches make up the bulk of the food pantry’s donors.
“In normal times, the food pantry really takes care of food insecurity for not only students on the UTA campus but some staff members that have food insecurity, and right now that need has not lessened,” said Amy Gibbons, Needels’ friend and a food donor.
Gibbons said she chooses to donate as a way to give back to others.
The food pantry is a constant challenge to run but also a constant joy, Needels said.
Every week she sends out an email to a roster of individuals informing them of what food items are low in stock. Soon after, donations will pour in randomly.
The pantry focuses on providing non-perishable foods such as vegetables and cereal to the UTA community, Needels said.
Donations can be dropped off at the Tri-C side entrance between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Donors should email email@example.com before bringing food and send a message to the phone number on the door after the food is dropped off.
The center usually operates with the UTA Volunteers’ food pantry to stock and carry out distributions, Needels said. However, students are not physically participating right now.
One of the challenges they currently face is spreading the word to those living with food insecurity, she said.
UTA Volunteers is working remotely to promote the distributions via social media, said Amber Waldron, UTA Volunteers food pantry director, in an email.
“During this time, [the food pantry] is essential to help students because it can be harder to get certain food items,” Waldron said. “With non-essential businesses closing, students can temporarily lose their jobs and not have [the] means to pay for groceries.”
Needels said she has experienced many joys while running the food pantry, such as someone bringing in a hand-written note and faculty members letting her know their enthusiasm to give to others.
“At UTA we have some amazing people in our community, and I get the joy of seeing them often at their best,” she said.