Virginia Western Community College President Robert Sandel said he didn’t realize the severity of the problem.

In a poll of incoming students enrolled in the Community College Access Program this year, 17% admitted to food insecurity. The college estimates as many as 5,000 students may go hungry on campus each day.

“I was just blown away by that,” Sandel said.

In response, the college and the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation announced a new food program Wednesday that aims to alleviate student hunger.

The initiative transformed the college’s food pantry, located in the Maury and Sheila Strauss Family Life Center, into the Virginia Western Student Co-Op.

Students — and faculty and staff — can choose from a wide assortment of food to take home based on their needs. The only requirement is a Virginia Western ID. The college’s student services department is running the improved food pantry.

Kroger and Kraft Heinz partnered with the college and the foundation to stock shelves inside the co-op. The companies each donated $10,000.

David Dantzler, a Kroger executive, said the company worked with food pantry experts and nutritionists at Virginia Tech and elsewhere to build the co-op inventory. Kroger also donated shelves, and reusable food bags and water bottles with the company’s logo.

Dantzler is also a former member of the college educational foundation’s board of directors. He and Doug Davis, head of field execution for Kraft Heinz, said the partnership is part of their respective company’s philanthropic efforts.

Dantzler said Kroger worked with food pantry experts and nutritionists from Virginia Tech to stock the co-op with healthier options. All of the food is nonperishable and includes meal ingredients.

According to the college, the partnership is the first of its kind at the community college level.

The new pantry unofficially opened last week when the fall semester began at Virginia Western in Roanoke.

Victoria Hillard, a third-year student at Virginia Western, said the co-op is an upgrade from the former pantry, and offers a wider selection.

Erin Cormier, Hillard’s sister and a student life specialist at Virginia Western, said she felt rebranding the pantry as a co-op helped students feel more comfortable accessing the food they need.

“I used to hear students calling it the snack room,” Cormier said.

The old pantry had only one 6-by-6-foot table and relied on donations from school employees and students.

The college started the pantry amid a push by the 23 community colleges across the state to address hunger. In April, the Virginia Community College System hosted a statewide conference at Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center focused on homelessness and food insecurity.

Sandel said it’s clear hunger can impede success for students, especially those already juggling other major responsibilities in life.

“It is estimated that as many as 50 percent of Virginia’s community college students suffer from food insecurity,” Sandel said. “That means instead of concentrating on their studies, these students are focused on a grumbling stomach or how they can secure their family’s next meal.”

Virginia Western hopes to continue its corporate partnerships to sustain the pantry beyond this school year, college spokesman Josh Meyer said.

Kroger Corporate Affairs Manager Allison McGee said the company is willing to help contribute funds to the program in the future.

The college’s educational foundation is also accepting monetary donations for the pantry.

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