Students saw the need for fresh produce as part of the UVA Food Pantry offerings and took action with help from the Equity & Environment Fund.

Sometimes coming up with a good idea is simply a matter of connecting the dots.   

In spring 2021, the Sustainability Advocates student group in UVA’s Office for Sustainability was exploring the issue of food security and social justice. They knew that 15% of students, or about 2,200 people, don’t have consistent access to nutritious, affordable food, and they were looking for ways to address the problem.

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One of the students, Sy Coffey, was also interning at Morven’s Kitchen Garden, which donates fresh, organically grown vegetables to UVA’s Community Food Pantry. He realized the garden was growing a lot more than it could donate – Dot #1. 

The pantry couldn’t take more produce because it didn’t have anywhere to properly store it – Dot #2.

Meanwhile, the Sustainable Advocates group – including Olivia Shaw, Rebecca Geiger, Sarina Cooper and Allison O’Neill – was looking for a proposal to submit to the Equity & Environment Fund, which provides grants to student projects that explore the intersection of social equity and environmental sustainability – Dot #3.

“I looked at that and it was just basically a supply chain issue,” says Coffey, now a 3rd-year student. “The pantry just needed a refrigerator to store the fresh produce.”

The solution offered a tangible benefit for student health. Food insecurity – including the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables – is linked to higher rates of diabetes, obesity and other health problems, and is most frequently a challenge for lower-income families and individuals. 

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Sy Coffey helped facilitate connections between the food pantry, Morven gardens and the E&E Fund.

Connecting the dots

After researching costs and collaborating with the volunteer students and UVA staff who oversee the pantry, the group applied for and received an E&E Fund grant of $3,000. As it turns out, the pantry space was being renovated over the summer, so the building crew was able to plan for and accommodate the addition of a large refrigerator, which was installed last August.

“It was one of the more serendipitous parts of putting the pantry together, so it was really great timing,” says Shelby Gibson, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and advisor for the student-run pantry.

“It was all very exciting to see it come to fruition,” Coffey says. As a double major in Global Sustainability and Commerce, he’s studying how economic principles, like supply-and-demand, can be applied to environmentally sound policies. The E&E Fund project aligned perfectly with his academic pursuits.  

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Student volunteers work the soil at the Morven Kitchen Garden.

He also learned something about himself: “I’m very concerned about the large issue of climate change. I’m always focused on the big picture, and this gave me an appreciation for the small victories. Even small things are a lot more complicated than they originally seem, you know. But getting one fridge in here helps my peers and students and faculty and staff.”

The pantry is currently stocked once or twice a week, and about 100 people use it on a consistent basis.

Next steps

Gibson says the Community Food Pantry is working to become a more permanent, on-Grounds service, including deepening its relationship with Morven Kitchen Garden and also applying to be a partner with the Blue Ridge Food Bank, which would be a major provider of produce. “When we do get produce, it goes almost immediately. Especially since Sy has provided us with this wonderful refrigerator, so we’re very excited.”

Coffey says this spring he hopes to significantly expand outreach to students, staff and faculty who may be interested in using the pantry. He also wants to improve logistics for delivery of Morven’s produce to the pantry, as well as connect with growers in the broader Charlottesville-Albemarle community who might have agricultural products to contribute. 

To help, he and the other Sustainability Advocates may apply for another grant. “The Equity & Environment Fund is a great resource.”