Department of Gender and Race Studies Recognized for Graduate Student Food Bank

From the September 2020 Desktop News | When COVID-19 hit the United States and temporarily closed many restaurants, bars, and stores in March, Dr. Utz McKnight realized that many graduate students in the UA community would lose their main source of income. Because of this, he wanted to find a way for faculty to give back to the graduate student community.

“The project was created around an idea to try and commit faculty and staff at UA to the graduate students,” said McKnight, chair of UA’s department of Gender and Race Studies. “I wanted us to build a new kind of relationship. People needed to feel that they were contributing to their broader community.”

After going through a number of ideas, McKnight and some of his colleagues decided that the most effective way to help their graduate students was through the formation of a food bank. Graduate students could request certain foods, and faculty members could donate money to pay for the food, or shop for and deliver food to the students.

“We needed to provide basic food aid to help students who were really struggling,” McKnight said. “By helping students to pay for food, it freed up money to pay for rent and utilities. It was one less thing for them to worry about during this time.”

Each department in the College of Arts and Sciences was invited to make requests for food, and McKnight would match students with anonymous shoppers. He said the most enlightening part was seeing what students needed, whether it was a vegan student who needed vegetables and grains, a student stocking up on meat products to have in the coming weeks, or a student providing for their children while schools were virtual.

Over the next few months, McKnight and the participating faculty helped dozens of students obtain healthy food. Throughout that time, 30 students requested some sort of food aid.

“Of the 30 students we had at one point, I would say about 15 were women of color,” McKnight said. “We also helped students who were putting food on the table for their children or grandchildren. So to be able to reach out to such a diverse group of people like that… I would say we were really successful.”

Because of his efforts aiding graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Utz McKnight and the Department of Gender and Race studies were awarded this year’s Departmental Diversity Award. The award goes to departments determined to make the campus and its faculty, staff, and students more diverse and inclusive. McKnight plans to put the $5,000 award back into the food bank so that it can impact even more graduate students.