Fighting food insecurity: Student leads Penn State Lion’s Pantry

Jessica Hallman
November 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a recent Project Cahir survey at Penn State, nearly a quarter of students said that they have decreased the size of their meals, or have skipped meals altogether, because they didn’t have enough money to eat.

Food insecurity is a reality on campus, and Spencer Wallace is on the front lines to combat it. As president of Lion’s Pantry, he oversees the campus food bank and the student organization that operates it, with the mission of addressing and mitigating student hunger. He also aims to inform the campus community about food insecurity.

“The Lion’s Pantry and food insecurity was something that I never really acknowledged when I first came to Penn State,” said Wallace, a senior in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. “Food insecurity is a very hidden problem; it’s not very acknowledged, and it’s stigmatized. So a lot of students simply don’t think it’s here or they don’t think about it on a day-to-day basis.”

When he joined the organization during his first year at Penn State, Wallace was simply looking for volunteer experience to add to his resume. But his involvement quickly developed into much more.

“It made me open my eyes about bigger issues and bigger problems in the world and at Penn State,” he said. “It helped me realize these problems and want to do something about it. It helped me realize a passion of mine and something that I can put my efforts toward, both in and out of school.”

Food insecurity isn’t just an issue at Penn State, said Wallace. It’s a problem worldwide.

“At every university, there are some students who need a little more help than others,” he said. “And that’s where the Lion’s Pantry comes in at Penn State. We’re trying to keep those students from falling through the cracks.”

A college-aged male puts a grocery item on the shelf of the Penn State campus food bank, Lion's Pantry.

Spencer Wallace stocks shelves at the Lion's Pantry in August 2020, in preparation for the fall semester.

IMAGE: Jessica Hallman

Serving students in need

The Lion’s Pantry, which is located on the University Park campus between Lion Surplus and the Blue Band Building, provides students in need with food, personal care, and household supplies, such as dish soap, laundry detergent and toothpaste. With a Penn State ID, students can select items from the pantry shelves -- set up similar to a grocery store -- or place an order to pick up a bag of food.

On average, the pantry serves around 50-60 students each month; however, Wallace notes that number is on the rise. To accommodate, and to reach even more students in need, Lion’s Pantry has expanded its services to offer pickup and curbside hours. Wallace hopes the pantry can offer delivery services soon, as well.

“We obviously don’t want to see the number of students experience food insecurity go up, but we want to find the students that need our services and help them in any way possible,” he said.

COVID-19 has added additional challenges for Lion’s Pantry. But an increased demand and an anticipated decrease in donations have provided opportunities for student staff and club members to be creative in their service offerings and fundraising campaigns.

“We’re trying to figure out ways that we can best serve the pantry users in a safe, comfortable environment, which is why drop offs and delivery services will be popular,” said Wallace. “We’re also working with Student Affairs and other units on delivery services to isolated and quarantined students who are living off campus.”

He added, “That’s another way to give students the resources they are in need of, given the circumstances.”

Seeing the outcome and hearing stories of how students have benefited from those services makes Wallace’s hard work worth it.

“Last year, one of our customers broke down crying because she could barely afford to eat at all during the school year,” he said. “Basically, the Lion’s Pantry was the only way she was staying afloat. I think that hit home pretty hard to highlight what we do and how we serve students.”

A life-changing personal and professional experience

“I love the Lion’s Pantry and everything that they do for students and everything that we do for our community. It’s a really rewarding experience."

-- Spencer Wallace, College of IST senior and president of Lion's Pantry

On track to earn his degree in security and risk analysis in May, Wallace said that his involvement with Lion’s Pantry has transformed his career goals.

“It’s encouraged me to give back to my fellow students and people in general, and to look for that in companies or industries I’m interested in as well,” he said. “I found this whole experience to be very rewarding, and it’s something I want to keep a part of my life in the future.”

The skills Wallace has learned at the College of IST have also translated into his work at the pantry.

“I’m using more technology to track incoming and outgoing goods using Excel and Tableau and different software programs to process data to get a better inventory system for the pantry,” he said. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned from the College of IST is how to manage a project, work with a team, and manage technology with a set deadline – which is massive for the Lion’s Pantry.”

He added, “When we’re running a project or an awareness campaign to get everything organized, using the right software and tools and getting the project done on time and making it effective is crucial.”

Additionally, Wallace participated in a virtual internship experience this past summer with Solve Tomorrow, through which he developed an interest in becoming a project or product manager in the tech industry. The leadership skills he’s gained through his internship and Lion’s Pantry position him to manage projects, teams and client expectations.

“I think it’s very important to keep the customer and their pain points in mind,” he said. “So that’s something I’d like to work on in my future: developing products for customers and for our society.”

Wallace also had the opportunity to build on his professional development skills through his involvement fighting student hunger on a higher level. This past summer, he represented Lion’s Pantry on a hunger and food insecurity task force at Penn State. He, along with representatives from a number of campus organizations were charged with developing a report on student hunger for President Eric Barron, to include their proposed solutions on a micro and macro level.

“It was really great to see the University support for the Lion’s Pantry and seeing that all the work we’ve done is being recognized by administration, and that they’re working on some ways to fix it,” he said. “It helped me personally and professionally to attend these meetings and work on this report.”

While Wallace has certainly gained many skills to add to his resume through his Lion’s Pantry involvement, he has found that the experiencing has been life-changing on a personal level.

“I love the Lion’s Pantry and everything that they do for students and everything that we do for our community,” he said. “It’s a really rewarding experience. And so it went from just a way to get involved in school and boost my resume to something that is truly a passion of mine and something that’s a part of my everyday life now.”

Last Updated November 19, 2020