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Graduate Student Food Pantry aims to mitigate food insecurity among Duke graduate students

A 2019 study by the Sanford World Food Policy Center found that at least 19% of Duke graduate and professional students are food insecure, but the Graduate Student Food Pantry is tackling the issue head-on. 

Sourcing inventory from wholesale retailers and a variety of local fresh produce sources, the GSFP provides essential food and goods to the Duke graduate student population. 

“I feel like it’s a really good initiative because a lot of [graduate] students, they really don’t get time to make food,” said Suraj Nair, a master of engineering management student. “I’ve been eating more since last week”.

“It's pretty much a big hassle to catch a bus and go downtown and go to the grocery store, buy stuff, go back and then you [have to] cook it, so this makes a lot of stuff convenient,” Nair added.

The GSFP stocks its shelves with mostly canned goods and shelf-stable foods from wholesale businesses such as Sam’s Club, but Kiran Shehnaz Kaur, a master’s student in biomedical engineering and the pantry’s executive director, wants to expand the food pantry to include inventory from local vendors to provide fresh food such as produce and baked goods.

The GSFP is open every Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. in Bay 6 of Smith Warehouse near East Campus.

The food pantry is officially partnered with Root Causes, a student-run organization created to address social determinants of health through service and action in the Durham community. One of the six branches of Root Causes is the Fresh Produce Program, which connects with local farmers to distribute fresh produce to food-insecure members of the Durham community. 

The Fresh Produce Program sources its produce from the Duke Campus Farms and Farmer Foodshare, a non-profit organization that aims to remove barriers to accessing locally grown food. After the Fresh Produce Program has packed its produce bags for its regular customers in Durham, FPP will create prepared produce bags based on produce popular with graduate students visiting the food pantry. FPP tries to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in each bag, and after sorting approximately 25 pre-portioned produce bags, FPP brings them to Smith Warehouse for the GSFP. 

Although the food pantry doesn’t open until noon, the lines outside of the pantry start to form around 11 a.m., and pantry supplies don’t last long. According to Kaur, there are 40 to 45 people who show up each weekend for the household basics and canned goods that the food pantry provides. 

“I would say it’s pretty helpful for securing our requirements for food, but I will say it could be an improved experience because the first time we arrived early and still nothing [was] left since they opened it early,” said Sayra Martinez, a master’s student in international development policy. “They had to control the amount of food that we could take because the first groups took everything and the rest had nothing.” 

The pantry receives support from Duke’s graduate and professional schools through a fundraiser organized by its current director, according to Kaur. Kaur aims to ensure that the food pantry is sustainable, streamlined and reliable. In the future, she also aims to build connections with local stores, bakeries and Duke Dining. 

Another priority for Kaur is community engagement and events for the upcoming holiday season. 

“Apart from just being a food resource, we would like it to be more collaborative … It’s like a two-way relationship,” Kaur said. 


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