Common Goods food pantry looks to address student food insecurity; build awareness

Feb 1, 2023
Tom Convery with food dontation bin

Common Goods food pantry coordinator Tom Convery next to a donation box in the Horace Mann Center at Westfield State University. (Staff photo)

Westfield State University's Common Goods food pantry is a resource for students who are experiencing food insecurity. The pantry aims to be a safe haven to secure provisions and has served as an "open shelf" pantry since March 2016. The idea for the pantry began when students residing in apartments and suite-style on-campus dormitories were financially compelled to choose between an education and a meal plan. The need influenced multiple Westfield State University community branches to partner in support of student health. Although Common Goods is known as a food pantry, the space offers items ranging from hygiene products and laundry detergent to clothing and notebooks. When first opened, necessities were basic and more geared toward men. However, the evolution of the pantry allowed women's necessities to be part of the offerings.

Food Pantry Items at Common Goods
Food pantry items at the Common Goods food pantry at the Second Congregational Church, 487 Western Avenue. (Staff Photo)

Common Goods is located at Second Congregational Church, 487 Western Avenue, adjacent to the entrance to the Commuter Parking Lot. This location is intentional as it works to protect students' identities, offering assurance of confidentiality. Common Goods coordinator and Westfield State University Class of 1978 alumni Tom Convery explained how, during the pandemic, much of the stigma of using a pantry vanished because people realized, "I am hungry, I have to eat. I don’t care what anybody thinks." On average, 30 Westfield State University students come in every week, Convery said.

According to a report prepared for the Massachusetts higher education system, 39 percent of Massachusetts public university students are food insecure, and many are not aware of the options that are available. “An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative,” a bill in the Massachusetts legislature has advanced to the Senate and House Ways and Means Committees with an aim to address food insecurity on campuses by amending Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) guidelines. According to the Greater Food Bank of Boston, “This critical legislation aims to provide a roadmap and funding to 2- and 4-year colleges and other education institutions that serve a significant proportion of low-income students to take steps to alleviate hunger and food insecurity on campus.”  

The bill’s purpose is to establish a hunger-free campus task force including participation from both students and administrative staff.  The task force will be charged with making students aware of their options and potential eligibility of programs such as SNAP, developing a student meal credit-sharing program, creating an emergency fund to support students in crisis and providing capacity-building funds for campuses to implement these best practices. 

Food insecurity is likely to impact students in a variety of ways.  Studies indicate students experiencing hunger suffer from anxiety, sleep disorders and a general lack of energy that can lead to poor health and an inability to focus on assignments, resulting in lower GPAs. First generation, minority and LGBTQ+ students are disproportionately likely to experience hunger in college.  

"We are all in this together," Convery said, bringing to light the contributions of the Westfield State community to keep the food pantry active. Donations vary from Westfield community members and Albert and Amelia Ferst Interfaith church members to department faculty members and alumni. Westfield State University "has a lot of people willing to donate. Our alumni who graduated years ago want to give back,” Convery said.  

Bringing awareness to the pantry's existence is a priority, says Convery. "We still have people who don't know we are here. This year we've started giving tours to student groups. We're always happy to show people what we have to offer."

Donation boxes are placed in six different active locations: Horace Mann Center (Main Lobby), Wilson Hall (Commuter's Common Area), Scanlon Hall (lobby), Ely Campus Center (lower level, near SAIL office), Albert & Amelia Ferst Interfaith Center, and Public Safety.  

In addition, donation boxes were expanded to residential halls during the end of the fall and spring semesters to collect food as students readied to move and return home. 

Upon entering the pantry, students are asked to fill out a short form inquiring whether there is anything else they need.

"We ask on that form that if there is something that you like and you do not see on the shelf, write it down, and we will get it for you," said Convery. “If it is an item we can get, we bring it in and send a message to the student that we now have that item,” he said. “This new service has been warmly received.” 

Convery expressed gratitude towards the people who helped execute this project flawlessly. "It's one of the ways of giving back to my college," he said. 

When students ask Convery how to repay him for his efforts, he answers, "Five, ten or twenty years from now, remember today and when you can, do something good for somebody else."

Common Goods food pantry is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m.