Food hall aims to address student food insecurity

Gather Food Hall offers students and community members affordable, healthy meals.

Tony Tran, creative director at Little Giant Creative, and Pam Chuang, junior graphic designer at Little Giant Creative, hang a poster explaining the steps to buy meals at Gather Food Hall on 11th Street near Spring Garden at their grand opening on Oct. 24. | CAMILLE COLEMAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

In Philadelphia, 52 percent of students at two-year institutions and 35 percent of students at four-year institutions struggle with food insecurity, according to a 2019 survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

Because of the high rate of food insecurity, Elias Gonzalez helped create Gather Food Hall, a community-focused dining hall located on Nectarine Street near 11th. Gather, a joint initiative between Little Giant Creative and Believe in Students, was created to combat food insecurity by offering a shame-free experience to students and community members, through donations and “pay-it-forward” models, said Gonzalez, a project manager at Little Giants Creative.

The food hall opened its doors to students and community members on Oct. 23.  

“With this pop-up, we want to start that conversation of bringing awareness to the food insecurity that is rampant in Philadelphia,” said Gonzalez, a 2016 media studies and production alumnus.

Gather Food Hall provides meals to students for $5, $7 or $10, but if students can’t afford the meal, they will get a $5 meal credit with a student ID, said Joshua Ortiz, a 2018 strategic communication alumnus and project manager at Little Giant Creative.

“We pretty much wanted to get students fed,” Ortiz added. “We have an amazing array of food vendors and so we mixed local food vendors who are Black and brown and made them more affordable.”

Gather Food Hall is funded by donations through Believe in Students, a local nonprofit that supports students through providing basic needs and individual donations from customers who choose to “pay it forward,” Ortiz said.

The food hall is set up outdoors, with each vendor under a canopy tent toward the back of the lot, with tables around for people to use.

Students and community members walk up and order a meal from the vendor of the day, and if needed, request that their meal be subsidized through prompts on tablets so it isn’t obvious who is using a voucher, Gonzalez said. 

Food is provided by vendors around the city like Baology, Rock n’ Rolls and Wood Street Pizza, Gonzalez said. 

Shamaya Overton, owner of Rock n’ Rolls, got involved in the project as a vendor because she is passionate about addressing food insecurity. She said she could relate to the uncertainty of affording food while living with financial uncertainty. 

“I know what it’s like being a college student and living paycheck to paycheck waiting to get your degree so you can hop into your career,” said Overton, a 2012 journalism alumna. “I’ve been there so I understand what it’s like.” 

At her stand, students can get two egg rolls, chips and a drink for $5, she said. 

Gather Food Hall hopes to be a conversation starter for the larger issue of tackling food insecurity, Gonzalez said. The team implemented a pay-it-forward model where people donate or pay for other’s meals who might not be able to afford it to add to the sense of community and Gonzalez said.

Gather’s setup is inspired by a community-centered night market, which generally has more eating and leisure than traditional day markets, Gonzalez said. He added that Gather revolves around the idea of nightlife that is accessible for all people.

Opening a food hall for the community has been a learning process for everyone, but the team is working to get as many students fed as possible, Ortiz said.

“We’ve been learning how to navigate vendors and make sure we have everything situated,” he added. “I think for us our main goal right now is to get as many students and people from the community out here as possible.”

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