By Harry Minium

You may have heard and even laughed about the stereotype of college students who eat ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After all, being a little hungry won't hurt you when you're in college, will it?

Contrary to that stereotype, recent studies revealed that hunger is a serious issue for millions of college students, many of whom are working to pay for school and don't earn enough to put the food they need on their table.

At a minimum, research indicates that 20% of college students suffer from food insecurity.

That need is partially being met at Old Dominion University by the Ignite Food Pantry, a Christian-based organization that provides food to students, faculty and staff.

However, Don Stansberry, ODU's interim vice president of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services, and his staff decided that the University needed to do more.

After conducting a food security survey in the fall, Stansberry tasked Amy-Leah Joaquim, assistant director for service-learning leadership and student involvement, to help open The Monarch Pantry, a University-run food initiative that operates out of the Suffolk Room in the Webb Student Center.

The Pantry has received funding from SEES and from the Rise to the Challenge Fund and food donated by Aramark, which operates dining services at ODU.

The Monarch Pantry received by far its largest private donation Wednesday morning from the Norfolk-based PRA Group. One of the nation's largest and most philanthropic-focused debt recovery companies, PRA Group officials presented Stansberry with a $50,000 check at the Webb Center.

"We greatly appreciate PRA Group making this donation," Stansberry said. "It will help our new pantry provide nutritional food for many ODU students."

Kevin Stevenson, president and CEO of PRA Group, said as soon as he learned that some students at ODU go hungry, "I knew we had to step up."

"Providing ODU students with access to fresh, nutritious food will allow them to focus where they should -on succeeding in college," he added.

The Monarch Pantry opened in the late spring and has been taking orders from students, who pick up food at the door once a week. Joaquim said that food has been critical for some during the pandemic. So far, more than 350 orders have been picked up by students.

Once the coronavirus pandemic ends, Joaquim envisions students coming into The Monarch Pantry to select their own food. Eventually, she hopes The Monarch Pantry will expand to meet students' other basic needs, such as clothes.

"We know from data that food insecurity can really affect the ability of students to do well in school," Joaquim said. "They may not be able to focus as well in class and some search for more work hours to buy food. Some drop out for a semester and they may not come back and complete their degree.

"Now we're in a position to tackle that from an institutional basis."

The Monarch Pantry is working with Ignite.

"Food insecurity on campus can affect so many and requires tackling the problem through multiple different programs and angles to reach as many students as possible," she said. "Our goal has always been to do something that complements what Ignite is doing."

Ignite is located at 1338 West 49th Street just off campus.

Donations to The Pantry are being accepted at Panera Bread in Monarch Way

The Monarch Pantry was supposed to open this fall. But when COVID-19 forced ODU to put classes online and shut down businesses where some students worked, Joaquim said ODU decided to open it early.

Joaquim said many students don't see themselves as food insecure.

"That's not necessarily a term they will self-identify with," she said. "I remember working with a student who didn't believe he was food insecure because he had three bags of frozen corn to carry him through until payday.

"They need to understand that access to nutritional food is something they benefit from, and there's no shame in needing help to access it."

Stevenson said he hopes his company's donation is the first of many.

"By becoming the first company to sponsor The Pantry, we hope it can raise awareness to this increasing issue of students experiencing food insecurity," he said. "And I hope we can encourage other organizations to get involved."

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