To hear Isabelle Largen tell it, the benefits of a visit to The Market of Virginia Tech extend well beyond the food that students leave with.

“The thing I enjoy most about [my job at The Market], and what makes me excited to come to work, is just getting to talk to our participants,” Largen said. “They’re pretty amazing. They don’t come and sit and talk only about food — they come and talk about their goals, the classes they are stressed about, or an upcoming thesis defense. Some people bring their kids with them. It’s more the people aspect that makes me excited about doing this.”

Now operating out of a new space in the University Mall and offering increased flexibility to participants, the staff and volunteers who make The Market possible hope the program can continue to expand its impact on students experiencing food insecurity.

Largen, a student worker at The Market who expects to graduate this December with a degree in water: resources, policy, and management, has been contributing to efforts to combat food insecurity since before The Market existed. In addition to working on VT Engage's Campus Kitchen program, urban gardens in Roanoke, and conducting research on food systems in Charlotte, she served as a student representative on the university’s Food Security Task Force. 

The Food Security Task Force was formed in response to research into the problem of hunger on campus, including a Virginia Tech study released in October 2019 that showed 29 percent of undergraduates and 35 percent of graduate students having low or very low food security. In March, the group released a report outlining a number of barriers to improving food security for students, as well as a variety of recommended strategies for overcoming those barriers at Virginia Tech.

Isabelle Largen gathers bags of groceries for student participants at The Market's previous location in March 2021.
Isabelle Largen gathers bags of groceries for student participants at one of The Market's previous locations in March.

The Market of Virginia Tech, which was made possible by a generous $1.5 million donation from alumni Hema and Mehul Sanghani, is one of several approaches the university is taking to improve food access for students. It’s a campus-wide initiative run by VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning and the Dean of Students Office, both units within the division of Student Affairs.

Based on an innovative concept that distinguishes it from traditional models of emergency food assistance, The Market’s staff and volunteers aim to build lasting relationships with, and provide ongoing nutritional support for, the students that visit each week.

Kas Church, who serves as the assistant director for food access initiatives for VT Engage, oversees The Market’s operations. “We don’t see ourselves as an emergency food pantry,” said Church, describing The Market’s unique approach to improving food access for participating students. “Our goal is to provide students with a solid base of fresh, nutritious ingredients, while also working to build relationships with our participants.”

The Market first began providing food for students experiencing food insecurity in the fall of 2020. Throughout its first two semesters of operation, up to 75 students visited The Market at one of its several previous locations each week to collect pre-filled bags, each of which contained about 10 meals worth of fresh meat and produce, dairy items, pantry staples, and more. In the 2020-21 academic year, The Market provided more than 125 Hokies with over 14,000 meals total.

“[The Market] has allowed me the peace of mind to focus on school work and simply to stay in the moment,” reads the anonymous feedback provided by an early student participant in The Market, “to be the most effective I can be each day without having constant thoughts or worries distracting me, knowing I will be okay and fed that week and the week after! It has made such a difference in my life!”

Another participant responded: “The mental toll of chronic hunger is that you gain a sort of existential cynicism towards life. You could be doing everything you possibly could, and you’d still feel miserable inside and out. I am so appreciative of the fact that someone noticed this largely invisible issue and cared enough to help. I think [this program] has the potential to save lives.”

Kas Church, the assistant director for food access initiatives for VT Engage, and a team of student workers set up The Market of Virignia Tech before student participants make their weekly visit.
Kas Church, the assistant director for food access initiatives for VT Engage, and a team of student workers set up The Market of Virignia Tech before student participants make their weekly visit.

This semester, thanks to the flexibility afforded by having its own dedicated location in a newly renovated space in the University Mall located near campus, The Market is able to offer greater freedom for participants to select the foods that best fit their dietary needs and preferences. They have also added additional pickup times each week to help accommodate participants’ busy schedules.

“Because we have a new, permanent space, people can pick what they want to have in their bags,” Largen explained. “They can come and say, ‘I already have so many bags of rice or dry goods from previous visits.’ It gives them the ability to choose. Most people are excited about being able to get fresh foods that they can prepare and cook in a way that they want. It leaves a little more room. Our participants come from a lot of different cultures and backgrounds.”

Currently, The Market is able to serve up to 75 students each week, but a substantial waiting list suggests that the need is far greater than The Market’s current capacity can accommodate. Church, Largen, and their colleagues hope that alumni and supporters will be able to provide additional resources that will allow the program to expand by as much as 20 percent in the next few months.

“This program literally wouldn’t be possible without donors,” said Largen. “I think it’s really important for people to know that every dollar they give is making an impact, even small amounts. Essentially, a week’s worth of groceries for a student costs around $30 to provide. When someone gives, every single dollar will help improve a student’s food security.”

A view inside a refrigerated display case at The Market of Virginia Tech containing milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and tofu.
The Market of Virginia Tech offers participants a wide variety of nutritious foods to choose from, including fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, non-meat proteins like tofu, dairy, eggs, pantry items, and more.

For Largen, whose decision to pursue a degree in water: resources, policy, and management was motivated in part by a desire to help improve access to clean, safe drinking water in rural areas, her experience with The Market may prove to have a lasting impact beyond graduation. 

“I would definitely say it has driven my career path a bit,” she said. “I used to be solely focused on issues around water and water access. I think my work with the Campus Kitchen and with The Market has led me to realize that, although food security is different from water security, there is a lot of overlap.”

Largen is considering a number of possibilities for her next step after graduation, including pursuing a master’s degree or applying to law school. “I’m still finding my path. I definitely see myself working within social change issues and public interest — something related to environmental justice, and most specifically food and water systems.”

Whatever route she takes, she and all the others who have invested time, effort, and resources in making The Market a success will have left a lasting impact on their fellow Hokies and the Virginia Tech community.

If you are a Virginia Tech student experiencing food insecurity, please contact the Dean of Students Office to learn more about The Market of Virginia Tech and other assistance programs.

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