By: Morin Mawhinney

The Panther Pantry is a group that appeared on campus last year. Their goal was to hand out food to anyone on campus who felt “food insecure” by holding “serving days.” Recently, the kitchenette in the Faculty Association Lounge had its appliances removed. Since this was the kitchen used by the Panther Pantry to prepare meals, this removal posed a challenge to the pantry’s mission. After a passionate open letter to the administration, 122 signatures of caring students and two meetings with administration, administration agreed that the kitchen will be renovated for the permanent use of the Panther Pantry. To learn a little more about this determined group on campus, I sat down with Claire Byrne, 3rd/4th Year student, Political Science and Diversity in Social Justice Double Major and one of the main executive organizers of the Panther Pantry.

TC: Can you give an overview of the situation from your side?

CB: About a year ago, my friend who goes to Concordia, told me about what’s called the People’s Potato. So she was telling me that every day at lunch people go and get food. She’s living off of $20 a week, so not having to do lunch from Monday to Friday is pretty significant. Anyways, she planted the seed and from there I connected with other people on campus who were doing similar things or who had similar interests and we started mapping out what this would look like at UPEI.  

With stuff like this, you kinda have to do what are your absolute needs and what you want to go for in the future. The absolute was we need a donation and we need volunteers, and in the future, we needed a space. So we were super well received, and then our big challenge this year was getting a dedicated space on campus and now we have it! It was kinda slow moving, starting in September but now we have our space, we’re gonna be renovating it in the next couple weeks and then hopefully we will be using it by the end of the first semester.

TC: So what was happening when the appliances were removed?

CB: The space we’re talking about is the Faculty Association Lounge, it’s a little kitchenette. People were using it intermittently, but it was mostly used for storage, it wasn’t really being used for food prep. What happened is that we organized a meeting with the administration, but before we could talk to them the appliances were taken out. When we did get to talk to them, they mentioned it was a safety issue. We met with them two times and at the of the second meeting there was a really positive note. So we now have committed funding from the Student Union and from the Administration to get appliances, and now it’s just a matter of getting appliances that fit within our budget and getting them installed. Then we’ll have a grand opening second semester.

TC: What are you going to do in terms of food prep until then?

CB: We’re going to hold off, we’re not going to have any serving days until we have our space because it takes a lot of volunteer work to kinda get stuff like this going. Last year when we served, I think we served seven times, but each time that three or four people the night before, three or four people the morning of, and then a couple people to serve. That’s a lot of time we’re asking from people; not everyone can dedicate three hours of their time. Our main focus is the space because come second semester, we already have donations lined up, we have the space that’s good to go, then it’s just a matter of getting interested volunteers.

TC: How many students did you serve last year?

CB: Per serving we had anywhere from fifty to a hundred students that would come by. Our food didn’t last very long. We were only serving about an hour and then it was all gone. Part of it too, is the more we serve and the more we’re able to serve, the more people we can feed. We only served about every other week so I’m hoping we can grow and do something three times a week.

TC: Do you see making sure that students well fed as part of the university’s responsibility?

CB: I absolutely think that universities should be investing in stuff like that. I think it should absolutely be part of a university mandate to make sure all their students are fed. That’s part of making sure all your students are safe and all your students have health insurance, which usually comes from the student union, not the university itself. I think it calls into question what the purpose of the university is as an institution. If the university doesn’t want to make that part of their mandate, though, or that’s not something they want to take on, that’s what we see from last week. If they’re not going to do it, at least they’re supporting student initiatives to do it.

TC: Can you explain the term “food insecurity?”

CB: In different studies that have been done, it’s been defined differently. For us, the definition we’ve been using is if you’re food insecure, it means you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or your skipping meals for financial reasons.

TC: You wrote an open letter to the UPEI Facilities, what was the response like? From staff or students?

CB: The response I got to that was a little bit overwhelming. It was great, it was shared a lot. After the second meeting with administration, we closed it, but by the end of the second meeting we reached 122 people, I think. All sorts more were commenting that they wanted to sign it, but they couldn’t because their address didn’t work. The response was huge and I think that influenced the administration to say, “Ok this is important, there is a lot of students on board with this.” Big community members, important players in our community were signing in saying, “I had the opportunities to work with these people. I can see this as a benefit to the campus.” I think seeing that kind of positive response helped propel stuff like this.

TC: If people want to volunteer and get involved with the Panther Pantry, how would they do that?

CB: Contact me! The Panther Pantry has an email address and a facebook page. The email is pantherpantry@upeisu.ca, or contact myself, I’m on facebook. The other execs are Jenna Burke, she’s a UPEI student, and Alisha Lewis, she’s a master’s students. Our meetings are Wednesday at 3 o’clock in the main building faculty lounge.