by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
When Pastor Josh Brown looks out of the window of his office at Bellefield Presbyterian Church, he can see eight of the dormitories on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, commonly known as Pitt.
“I believe that God strategically placed us here to be a light to the college community,” he said. “In fact, even though our church is primarily made up of young professionals and families, many of them are here because someone at Bellefield invested in them when they were in college.”
So in the fall of 2014 when the university’s Dean of Students, Kathy Humphrey, approached Brown with a partnership proposal, he was eager to listen.
“The leadership at Pitt had become aware of a problem with food insecurity among their student population,” Brown said. “Many students were paying for school on their own but still living with parents, so they didn’t qualify for financial assistance.”
That left many of the university’s nearly 34,000 students choosing between paying for books and tuition or buying food—and much of the food that they could afford was lacking in nutritional value.
So Humphrey decided to set up a food pantry through PittServes, the university’s community service arm. That’s when she approached Brown and asked if they could house the pantry in Bellefield’s basement.
“At the time there wasn’t a suitable on-campus space, and retail spaces weren’t economically feasible,” explained Ciara Stehley, who serves as the Pitt Pantry Coordinator. There also was a concern that the stigma of being food insecure might keep students from coming to a location on campus.
Brown took the idea to his congregation, who welcomed the idea with open arms. Church members pitched in to clean out the basement, which was being utilized as a youth space, and Pitt Pantry officially opened during the spring 2015 semester.
At first, the pantry was stocked only with non-perishable items, but soon grew to include meat, dairy, and fresh produce. The university purchases most of the food from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, and the rest comes from charitable donations by members of the community.
Pitt Pantry is open Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Appointments also are available every weekday for anyone who cannot get there during its open hours. The pantry is staffed entirely by volunteers, and any Pitt student, staff, or faculty member whose income is less than 150 percent of the poverty line is eligible to shop at the pantry. As many as 80 people visit the pantry each month, which Stehley said was an increase of about 50 percent since the pantry opened in 2015.
Jason Ong, President of the Pitt Pantry Student Executive Board, says that volunteering at the pantry has opened his eyes to a hidden issue on his college campus.
University of Pittsburgh students collected donations for the Pitt Pantry at the annual “Pitt Make a Difference Day” in October.
“I have learned that food insecurity does not have one face,” he said. “Any individual could face choosing to purchase a mandatory textbook over a meal. Beyond this, I am grateful to have met such a welcoming community at the Pantry.”
Brown occasionally encounters pantry shoppers who are curious about why the church is willing to help.
“I never want anyone to feel like the food comes with strings attached,” Brown said. “When someone inquires why we are doing this, I ask them if they were hungry that morning. And when they tell me they were, I say, ‘Then we want you to have the food you need so you won’t feel that way tomorrow.’”
Students receive food from the pantry with no obligation, though Brown hopes those who participate will recognize that Bellefield is a church that cares about students.
“We post information about our services and let them know that they are always welcome,” Brown said. The church recently added a third worship service at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays with acoustic music and a relaxed, reflective format in hopes that it would be an additional draw for students.
“Our congregation has been very supportive of the pantry,” Brown said. “We want to be aware of opportunities to reach out and connect with the community and be sensitive to the Lord’s leading through the channels that He creates.”
Brown believes the Pitt Pantry is one of those channels. He and another Bellefield member serve on Pitt Pantry’s board, and several student leaders in their Cornerstone ministry for college-aged young adults serve as volunteers.
In return, the university has also reached out to Bellefield. A few weeks ago, more than 40 PittServes students showed up at the church for a day of weeding and cleaning.
The Pitt Pantry also has brought regional awareness to the issue of food insecurity and prompted other universities to begin similar programs for their students. Stehley emphasized that being able to influence others is an exciting part of her work.
“Getting to share our successes and challenges at conferences across the country and support other schools as they improve the food needs of their students is one of my favorite things about my role,” she said. “As we move toward a holistic and proactive approach to supporting our students, we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. But we realize that we have a continued responsibility to strive for creative and systems-focused solutions.”
Brown hopes that Bellefield will continue to play a significant part in helping to find those solutions. He said the partnership with Pitt has enabled them to meet the needs of their community more effectively together than either could have done individually.
“I believe it’s a blessing for those around us to see a local congregation and a large university working together like this,” Brown said. “Our hope going forward is that we can continue to find ways to partner with the university to care for students in ways that reflect the love of Christ and model an effective, collaborative partnership.”