A volunteer group created by Virginia Tech graduate students recently donated $10,000 worth of grocery-store gift cards to help efforts to address the problem of food insecurity.

University students who are struggling to afford enough healthy food to eat are encouraged to contact the Dean of Students office, which is distributing the cards and also runs several other support programs that may be able to help.

“We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary gift that will enhance our efforts to help today’s Hokies get enough nutritious meals — something they need to be able to thrive and reach their full potential,” said Dean of Students Byron Hughes. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see students step forward like this to help their peers.”

The gift was made by Food Access for Students, formed in fall 2019 by Anurag Mantha and Cortney Steele, who were inspired to take action after learning how prevalent food insecurity was among their fellow students.

“Our intent was to form a short-term solution while the university would come up with a longer-term solution, and thankfully we are now at a point where the university has a longer-term solution,” said Mantha, who recently took a job with the Virginia Department of Health and expects to complete his master’s in civil engineering remotely in spring 2021.

In September, the university announced a new food-access program for students called The Market of Virginia Tech, which is run by the dean of students’ office. Planning for the program began in early 2020. The Market was able to be launched thanks to a generous gift by alumni couple Hema and Mehul Sanghani. Additional fundraising for the program is ongoing.

Virginia Tech students Anurag Mantha and Cortney Steele in 2019
Virginia Tech students Anurag Mantha and Cortney Steele in 2019.

The issue of food insecurity among students at Virginia Tech gained wider attention following a study released in October 2019 that showed 29 percent of undergraduates and 35 percent of graduate students having low or very low food security. Low food security is defined as reduced diet quality. Very low food security is defined as experiencing disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

“There were times when I had to borrow money for food myself,” said Mantha, who came to Virginia Tech from India and is now a permanent resident of the United States. “This is a predicament that a lot of international students face because they can only work 20 hours a week and cannot seek outside employment. I was definitely surprised by the [study] results. I knew it was an issue among the international student community. But I was surprised by the magnitude of it overall.”

Mantha worked with Steele to set up a GoFundMe web page. They used the donations it generated to buy $200 gift cards from Kroger to distribute.

“I wanted to do something, especially being in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, where we always talked about [food insecurity] but didn’t really talk about it in-house as opposed to in communities offsite,” said Steele, who defended her dissertation in August and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado.

Food Access for Students raised more than $36,000 by inspiring more than 270 donations before Mantha and Steele disabled new gifts to their GoFundMe page and gave the remaining $10,000 worth of grocery-store gift cards to the dean of students’ office.

Among those who generously supported the effort was Karen DePauw, the university’s vice president and dean for graduate education, who made a sizeable challenge gift that helped inspire others to give.

“Anurag and Cortney’s dedication to their fellow Hokies has been extraordinary,” DePauw said. “Their willingness to step forward and take action has made a major impact and serves as a wonderful example for us all.”