Early last year, the nation was shocked with media reports claiming that students in our public universities were starving
because they could not afford to buy themselves proper meals.
The reports -- which quoted a survey conducted by the Muslim Volunteer Malaysia Association (MVM) on 25,632 students from six public universities -- had stated that 57 per cent of them could only afford to allocate RM5 a day for food.
The survey also had revealed that the 44 per cent students from Universiti Tekonologi Mara, Universiti Malaya, Universiti Islam Antarabangsa (UIA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Utara Malaysia and Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia only ate rice with egg, while a further 41 per cent claimed that all they could only afford to eat were instant noodles.
However, such alarming figures were nothing out of the ordinary for Sheila Sri Priya because she went through the same ordeal. When she was an undergraduate, she sometimes had to endure the pain of hunger due to the shortage of cash.
Although she could not do anything about it then, she always had the urge to help such students, especially when she started working.
In October last year, the journalist was selected by the United States State Department to attend the Young South East Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) fellowship of Fall 2016, where she was first introduced to the concept of ‘Pop Up Pantry’.
‘Pop Up Pantry’ is a food pantry for undergraduates that have been implemented by universities in several countries to help deserving students get by.
The initiative served as an eye-opener for Sheila and she was driven to do something similar here. Sheila started Malaysia’s very own ‘Campus Pop Up Pantry’ in March this year and she never looked back ever since.
caught up with her recently to take a closer look at the Campus Pop Up Pantry.
Not Doing It For The Attention
The YSEALI fellowship of Fall 2016 had inspired Sheila in so many different ways.
“I met amazing youths from all over the world doing amazing things. They were innovators, creators and all doing their share for their communities. Some created schools for the marginalised community while others advocated for healthcare for the marginalised.
“They were creating impact in the society in small but meaningful ways," she tells us.
But what really inspired her to bring the Pop Up Pantry concept to Malaysia was when she visited a small town called Hooksett in New Hampshire during the fellowship where she discovered a group of mothers who gathered food and distributed to some 75 needy local families on a weekly basis.
“They were a small community but they looked out for one another. I saw kindness everywhere and I liked the fact that the community came together to help.
“I learnt the art of giving without crying out for attention and publicity,” she shares.
Those kind deeds reminded her of her campus days, she says.
“There were times where I was tight for cash and food is where I cut corners. I wish at that time there were people who could have helped the needy students.
“I believe students, especially undergraduates, should have nutritious food to eat, but not many are fortunate enough to have parents who could fund them. Some of them work part time to fund their meals."
The reason why no one noticed the trend, according to Sheila, was because no one was willing to talk about it.
“Hunger among campus students is a very sensitive topic because many will not speak about it openly. However, when you talk to them discreetly, you will realise the situation.
“I was an undergraduate once and I had encountered hunger before. Today, I am not ashamed to say it because I know I can make a difference,” she says.
Getting The Pantry To Work In Malaysia
During her time in the US, Sheila had the opportunity to meet students from the George Mason University in Virginia, who ran a Pop Up Pantry called the “Patriot Pantry’.
“The concept is easy. They have a room filled with donated food items. The needy students could go and get food based on a ratio. Privacy is ensured for all the students as they are usually embarrassed to take the food as they don't want to be seen in a needy state.
"Hence, the arrangement is such that they will go into the pantry one at a time and the timing will not clash with another recipient,” she explains.
Sheila was exhilarated to try out the same concept at home, as she wanted to reach out to the needy students here, a privilege that she didn’t get when she was studying.
“When I returned to Malaysia, I opened my laptop and started drafting a letter to the Sunway Malls as they have many malls under them, to collaborate with my pop up pantry suggestion."
And Sunway Malls was more than happy to work with Sheila.
“They were kind enough to accept the idea and provided me with an area in their premise called ‘Food For Thought’, where a large donation box can be placed.
“Shoppers started noticing the box and they started donating non-perishable food items. The response has been encouraging so far,” she says.
Making A Big Difference
Sheila says that since the inception of the project, about 100 students have benefited from it.
“I gather the food collected and distribute them to the needy undergraduates in University Malaya and Cybernatics College of Technology in Taman Maluri, Cheras. I will go there once a month or twice a month to distribute the non-perishable food items.
“I work with the university and college closely, where they will provide me the list of the needy students. Many of them come from low income families, where their parents could be rubber tappers, odd job workers, single-parent families, parents with terminal illness or even some students who don’t have parents."
Sheila tells us that most of these students only get between RM50 and RM150 as allowance from their parents for all their expenses.
“I once met a girl with six siblings, with the youngest sibling being five-years old. Their parents were dead. They were all under the care of the grandfather who only receives some pension. She was the eldest among the siblings and she was grateful for the donations,” she recalls.
Sheila adds that the best thing about starting Campus Pop Up Pantry is that it somehow managed to inspire other people.
“I was informed by a former University Malaya graduate that he wanted to start a similar project in a school in Perak. He was inspired by my project and I am invited to go and guide the school on how to make this project work.
“In the long run, I plan to start this project in more campuses and even schools. However, I rely on public donation hence it could be unpredictable. I want more people to embark on such journey,” she says.
If you're planning to help Sheila out with her journey, here's how you can donate:
- Leave food donation (only non-perishable food) such as biscuits, instant noodles, oats, Nestum cereal, 3 in 1 drinks (Milo, coffee) at the ‘Food For Thought’ corner at any of the Sunway Malls outlet (Sunway Giza, Sunway Velocity, Sunway Pyramid, Sunway Putra Mall).
For more details, visit Campus Pop Up Pantry's official Facebook page
, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.