UIC food pantry ready with hundreds of donated meals to aid students

Leonardo Hernandez, Christina Paredes, Aislinn Delgado, Carol Petersen and Hector Gutierrez pose after unloading 900 meals for students. (Photos: Jenny Fontaine/University of Illinois Chicago)

Students experiencing food insecurity this holiday break will have the opportunity to receive free shelf-stable meals from UIC’s Pop-Up Pantry, in part thanks to PepsiCo Inc., which donated 900 meals for students.

The company recently dropped off dozens of boxes containing bright blue bags stuffed with enough food for two lunch and breakfast meals.

Carol Petersen, senior director of the UIC Wellness Center and co-founder of the UIC Pop-Up Pantry, said the meals will be available for students to pick up Wednesday, Dec. 20, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Students must swipe their i-cards to receive the nonperishable items.

“That means for students who have alternative housing and living situations, they don’t have to worry about having a refrigerator. It’s just something that can go on their shelves and doesn’t have a quick expiration date,” Petersen said.

Aislinn Delgado, a second-year neuroscience student who has worked at the pantry since she joined UIC, said she expects students to take advantage of the meals. She also volunteers at a local food pantry near her home in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Carol Petersen (right), Christina Paredes and Aislinn Delgado move the donations to the pantry.

“It makes me really excited for my classmates who come here pretty often because I know it’s going to make them happy and help them with school,” Delgado said.

Petersen said the pantry, which began in 2014, continues to serve a need for the campus and now has a permanent home on the second floor of the Student Center East Tower, 750 S. Halsted St., in the former Montgomery Ward Gallery.

During the school year, 300 to 350 students on average receive food from the UIC pantry each week, Petersen said. During the 2022-2023 school year alone, the pantry distributed 11,000 bags of groceries to hundreds of students. The pantry is open Wednesdays and Thursdays during the school year.

When students register for the food pantry, they are asked how much food they have in their homes, and about 80% of those students say they have less than 10 food items at home at the time, according to the pantry’s statistics.

“We really need to make sure that they have what they need,” Petersen said.

A third-year history major, Hector Gutierrez has worked at the pantry for two years. He was on hand to unload the boxes from a PepsiCo van and helped stock the pantry with the bags of meals. He said he realizes the need when he interacts with the students weekly.

“I get to meet students every week at the pantry when they come in to take advantage of the services we offer,” Gutierrez said. “It feels great to help these students.”

Hector Gutierrez (right) and Leonardo Hernandez stock the food pantry with meals.

Leonardo Hernandez, a biological sciences major who graduated from UIC earlier this month, said he has worked at the pantry for more than two years. He said the pantry serves to help students focus on their school rather than worry about where their next meal will come from.

He said he often reads notes that students leave behind thanking the pantry for the assistance.

“It does help them a lot because there are a lot of students, and they constantly keep coming back, and you can tell that it’s very necessary,” Hernandez said. “They say, ‘This is very helpful, and I don’t have to worry about eating.'”

Petersen said the students go to the pantry for many reasons. Some students eligible for Pell grants may be financially challenged and may help their families with food. Other students may be parents themselves, unemployed or managing a life crisis or medical condition. Others may be under-employed or experiencing housing insecurity, she said. It’s all about connecting students with an essential biological need and supporting physical and cognitive function through nutrition, Petersen said.

Aislinn Delgado assists Hector Gutierrez unpack meals donated by PepsiCo.

“UIC students are wonderful; they are strong and brave, and despite having challenges, they are still pursuing academic success. However, they still face the realities of life and social challenges,” Petersen said. “The way life works once you have a financial constraint; it doesn’t necessarily go away.”

The donations by PepsiCo are part of its efforts to give back to the community, according to the company.

“UIC plays a pivotal role in shaping our city and nurturing the leaders of tomorrow, and we are honored to assemble and distribute 900 nutritious meals at our 35th Street location, extending support to members of the UIC community this holiday season,” said Armando Saleh, director of government affairs for PepsiCo. “The 5,000 dedicated PepsiCo employees residing in the Chicagoland area take pride in leveraging our resources to not only offer employment opportunities but also ensure food security — a cornerstone that fortifies the strength of the communities we are deeply connected with year-round.”

With the holiday season upon us, Petersen said PepsiCo’s donation was incredibly gratifying.

“Because it is the week before Christmas, it’s awesome to give a bounty,” Petersen said. “It means students will be walking out with a lot of food.”

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