Ross, Williams support ECU food insecurity efforts

The initial reaction to learning that East Carolina University students experience food insecurity was surprise. For Drs. Dennis Ross and Billy Williams, the second reaction was to fund efforts to change it.

Drs. Dennis Ross and Billy Williams, center, prepare to cut the ribbon on the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry. (Photo by Steven Mantilla)

On Feb. 15, the two friends and local dental care providers cut the ribbon at the reopening and naming of the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry at ECU’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement.

“Dr. Ross, as well as his entire family, have had a significant impact on East Carolina University and really every facet of the university from academics, athletics, professional programs and student life,” said Greg Abeyounis, senior associate vice chancellor in University Advancement. “This is yet another example of him being a wonderful philanthropist and helping so many places throughout eastern North Carolina.”

Through the donation of real estate, Ross provided funds for the pantry. His gift not only provides support for an important cause but also an opportunity to honor a dear friend who has made an indelible mark on his life and to spotlight Billy Williams as a great person, friend and humanitarian, Abeyounis said.

“The long-term plan for this partnership is not only to give financially, but like they do with everything, to provide their passion and time as well,” Abeyounis said. “Food insecurity is a major issue at ECU, on many college campuses and throughout the country, and it’s found pervasively throughout our entire region. They are honored to be involved in this project, providing wonderful resources and connections to make sure all these people are safe.”

The mission of the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry is to decrease food insecurity among the students at ECU and increase access to other personal care items. It’s a cause Ross and Williams are both committed to supporting with their time and financial gifts.

Williams and Ross have been involved separately with several organizations in Pitt County, using their efforts to support the needs of the community. This is their first opportunity to team up in a joint effort to take on food insecurity.

“When Dennis approached me about teaming up to support the Purple Pantry, I was not aware East Carolina had this available to the students,” Williams said. “We have all experienced hunger at some point in our lives, but most of us have the resources to solve the need for food. I was surprised to know that over 4,000 undergraduate students here at East Carolina experienced hunger and food insecurity.”

After visiting the pantry and learning more about the need at ECU, Williams said he was excited to be a part of the solution to help solve the food insecurity concerns.

“It is my hope going forward to get more out of our community, including local businesses, to help with donations or gifts in kind,” Williams said. “I look forward to the growth of the Purple Pantry in the future.”

Ross said his faith and finding purpose were central to getting on board to fight food insecurity at ECU. He believes being blessed requires him to do for others.

“I get great joy out of taking the blessings that I’ve got and following my heart and trying to do for others,” Ross said. “I can’t change the world, I can’t change the war in Israel, I can’t do that, but we can make a difference in what we’re doing here.

Ross said his goal would be to have Pitt County be the first county in the United States to not have anybody hungry. “It’s fixable right now. You just have to help, you to have jump on board,” Ross said.

He is also proud to honor his friend in the naming of the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry. Both men said they are excited to help and looking forward to bringing more exposure to the pantry and focusing on defeating food insecurity.

Meeting student needs

Since 2020, the pantry has been overseen by the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (CLCE). Alex Dennis, CLCE senior assistant director, said there has been a drastic increase in pantry use in the past year.

“We are so appreciative of donors like Dr. Ross and Dr. Williams, who have contributed to the growth of the pantry and recognize the need here at ECU,” Dennis said. “We look forward to continuing this partnership and the long-term sustainability of the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry and being able to help our students succeed in and out of the classroom.”

The pantry had 612 shoppers (students who access the pantry) in fall 2022 and 1,393 in fall 2023. During that time, staff and volunteers distributed more than 6,000 pounds of food and hygiene products to ECU students.

Jada Barnes ’23, a graduate assistant in the CLC, started work as a volunteer and now has behind-the-scenes responsibilities in the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry operations and the Swipe Out Hunger initiatives.

“I’m just so proud of what this resource has become for our students and how it’s evolved over the years,” Barnes said. “We’ve seen really, really consistent exponential growth in many aspects of the (Williams-Ross) Purple Pantry, including volunteering, engagement and utilization of the pantry.”

Barnes said the pantry has 175 trained volunteers who have distributed 470 meals to more than 150 students on campus.

Chelsea Hewitt, a graduate assistant in campus living who works as a part-time assistant in the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry, has seen support grow for the pantry.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to see the growth and the transformation that pantry has been making, and none of this would be possible, of course, without our dedicated staff, student volunteers, community partners and others,” Hewitt said.

Lekisha Pittman, network engagement coordinator for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, was an early advocate focused on food insecurity working as the North Carolina Hunger Corps AmeriCorps VISTA worker in the CLCE.

“I’ve had some history with this phenomenal organization,” Pittman said. “My favorite title that I ever had was the ‘Pantry Lady,’ I had the pleasure to work under the supervision of Lauren Howard (director of the CLCE) to help mold the pantry into what it is today.”

The Williams-Ross Purple Pantry was created after data collection in 2017 uncovered that food insecurity and financial stress were among students’ highest concerns. Since opening in the spring of 2018, students have been able to collect their most needed food and hygiene items from the pantry. The pantry has grown from a by-appointment service open a few hours a week to its integration into the CLCE space in the Main Campus Student Center, which is open for student shoppers five days a week.

“This (resource) has been vital in increasing the awareness of the pantry and helping to reduce the stigma of using the food pantry for assistance,” Pittman said. “Students shared that they would not have known where the next meal was coming from if it wasn’t for the pantry.”

ECU community support

Members of the ECU community dedicate their time, talent and treasures to create a sustainable resource on campus to combat food insecurity and support the Williams-Ross Purple Pantry throughout the year.

In recognition of the naming and ribbon cutting event, members of the Harriot College’s Staff Council celebrated on Feb. 14 with their “Share the Love” fundraising campaign that produced 200 pounds of food and hygiene products for the pantry.

The College of Engineering and Technology’s industrial distribution and logistics program operates a student service learning lab that serves as a mini warehouse for food donations to the pantry. The students get an opportunity to learn how to run a warehouse where products arrive, receive barcodes, are stored in the proper location, and are easily accessible and delivered when they receive an order from the pantry.

Members of Harriot College’s staff council raised 200 pounds of food and hygiene products for the pantry.