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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

IGNITE Food Pantry Helps Feed ODU Community

By Harry Minium

As you walk past the Diehn Center for Performing Arts Center, it's easy to miss a building across 49thStreet adorned with a sign that says "IGNITEnorfolk."

It's a small brick building with modest accoutrements that plays a huge role in helping students, faculty and staff at Old Dominion University.

It houses the IGNITE Food Pantry, which began in 2015 after school officials learned that nearly one-fourth of students faced food insecurity on campus. The pantry provides groceries at no charge to students, faculty and staff - with no questions asked. Simply show up with an ODU ID on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from noon until 5 p.m., when the staff hands out bags and boxes of food.

The pantry has grown every year since. Last year, it served between 400 and 500 people.

McKayla Winder, outreach coordinator for the IGNITE, wants to make sure students know about the pantry.

"I come across students all the time who are seniors and we've been here all the time and they had no idea we were here," Winder said.

The food pantry is active on social media and leaves signs and flyers around campus.

Pantry shelves and refrigerators are full of food, from tuna to canned corn to frozen meals.

The scope of what the pantry offers has notably increased in the last few months, thanks in no small part to the opening of the new Panera Bread on Monarch Way in the University Village.

Panera's company policy is that at the end of every day, its more than 2,000 restaurants donate all leftover food to pantries, homeless shelters and other groups that help the hungry. The IGNITE Pantry receives food from Panera two days a week.

Randy Timmerman, director of IGNITE who is also an associate pastor at Larchmont United Methodist Church, said his group was "overwhelmed" the first day it received donations from Panera.

"It was the day after the soft launch, and I don't think people knew they were open," Timmerman said. "I don't think they sold very much. I felt like we had an entire Panera bakery on our shelves."

Winder said because of those donations, 33 more faculty, students and staff members were helped.

The food pantry gets some funding from ODU, but largely relies on the private sector. The United Methodist Church of Virginia provides the building.

ODU sororities and fraternities have held food and fundraising drives. ODU's transportation and parking services ran a food drive recently in which anyone who donated a 40-ounce jar of peanut butter could have a parking ticket forgiven.

Aramark and Monarch Dining donates food, including most recently 72 frozen meals.

The food bank partners with the Food Bank of Southeastern Virginia and is on a waiting list to join a food rescue plan that would allow it to partner with a local grocery store. If that happens, once a week the IGNITE pantry would receive donations of fresh produce and meats directly from a store.

"That would really allow us the bolster and improve what we can serve here," Timmerman said.

He hopes the pantry is able to connect with the new Aldi grocery store under construction on 21st Street in Ghent.

As a Christian pastor, Timmerman is committed to helping the poor. His work at the pantry is largely secular, but added, "we are a campus ministry."

IGNITE has a mentoring program with students in the Park Place neighborhood.

"Our goal is to get students here engaged in something that makes a difference and really matters," he said.

A Woodbridge native, Winder graduated from ODU in 2018 and has worked at IGNITE since shortly after it opened. Her goal was to work with nonprofit organizations.

Timmerman only recently came on board as director but is impressed with what he's seen.

"So many things have happened the last few months that we have just exploded," he said. "It's really exciting to see all of this come together to help people who need help."

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