The story of Justin Franks's food pantry is a compelling reminder of the power of individuals when they freely come together to find societal solutions. (Photo: WHNT)

The story of Justin Franks’s food pantry is a compelling reminder of the power of individuals when they freely come together to find societal solutions. (Photo: WHNT)

How far can an individual act of kindness go? If you ask the students at Alabama A&M University, the answer may surprise you.

Justin Franks, a sophomore at Alabama A&M, is not your typical second-year college student. His generosity and ingenuity have captured the attention of his campus, community, and even the international press.

The idea was simple. We all know most college students are broke, and some don’t always eat very well while in school, but must this really be their persistent fate?

As a part-time desk assistant at his campus dorm facility, Franks says he saw firsthand how many of his fellow schoolmates would go to bed hungry. Rather than wait for someone else to solve the problem, Franks says he placed the onus on himself. He launched a “food pantry” out of his own dorm room with a “startup capital” of just $40, stocking it at first with merely Ramen noodles and Capri Sun.

Word of the food pantry soon spread like wildfire through social media, quickly outgrowing Franks’s dorm and taking his act of kindness to places he never imagined it would go.

This story is a compelling reminder of the power of individuals when permitted to come together freely to find societal solutions, and with an efficiency that puts most state-run welfare programs to shame. The Tax Revolution Institute (TRI) recently spoke to Franks to learn more about the impetus for this revolutionary idea. Franks shared with TRI how the idea was first born, how his food pantry compares to state-run, taxpayer-funded food banks, and what others can learn from his experience.

What inspired you to start your food pantry at Alabama A&M?

The thing that inspired me to do it was, when I was working in my dorm, I worked from 4 to 8 pm or 8 pm to 12 am. During those times, there were a group of students that were looking for something to eat. I went up and got some things out of my room, and that inspired me to start the food pantry. Our motto at A&M is “Service is Sovereignty,” so I wanted to live up to our motto. We have to serve our students and serve our community. I feel like charity starts at home, so why not help our own students out?

What was your initial goal with starting the food pantry?

My initial goal was to make sure that no student on campus was going to bed hungry or going without food. Some students are in band, or the football team, or just in different extracurricular activities and don’t have time to go to the cafeteria, because the cafeteria closes at 6 o’clock. So, my pantry opens from 6 to 11 pm. So, every student should be able to come by and get a snack, or come by and get a small meal; enough to get them full for the night.

Federal and state food banks generally have very strict rules for people in order to receive assistance. How do you make sure that you’re not cleaned out by students who just don’t want to go to the grocery store?

That is one of the problems. I can’t tell which students are “just there,” but I never turn a student away because I don’t know their situation. The way my pantry is set up now, I have enough food to be able to provide to the students. I don’t send any student away, because I don’t know if they’re really hungry or just don’t want to buy something. It’s not something that you can just look at somebody and see.

Now, we have a rule that students cannot come to my pantry if they are on drugs. If I can tell that they are high, that they just got done smoking, they can’t come to the pantry.

That is one of our rules. You can tell if a person is under the influence. The other rule is that a student can come three times a week and once every 24 hours. And we allow them to get three items per visit.

How do you keep track of all that? Do you have assistants helping you out with this food pantry?

Yes, I have a personal assistant that helps me with the food pantry, and I also have the resident assistants that help me when I’m in the dorms. We have a log that we keep up with.

Why would you not send students to some of the other existing food banks or food pantries in the area? Why create your own?

I know some students don’t have cars, and I try to make it convenient for the students here. I felt like I needed to do something for my community and my school. I feel like charity starts at home, and I felt like I could be a help to the students here at A&M.

Is this something that is necessary to do on other college campuses?

I think it is. Poverty, or hunger, or not having money are not just issues at Alabama schools. It’s at all schools. With the rise in tuition, students are in debt all the way up to their heads. They don’t always have money. They won’t always have money in the bank to go off-campus and buy something to eat. Some don’t have cars to go and get something to eat. It’s good to have something on campus that’s convenient.

How much money did you spend starting this?

When I started, I spent my own money. I started with $40. I got a lot of Ramen noodles, a lot of Capri Suns, and drinks and water. It just started from there. I posted on Facebook that I was “pleased to announce that I had started a food pantry.” I started it in my room, using the common area, using the cabinets. It got so large that I had to move it downstairs to our mailroom. Now, we have shelves full of food. We now have toiletry items: soap, feminine products, body wash, just a lot of things … razors.

When did you start this pantry? Did it grow a lot before the news article?

I started it early on in September (2016). It was growing a lot before the news article. But when we got the news article from WHNT, that’s when it really blew up.

What kind of accountability system do you have in place so that people know when they donate to you that it’s going to food?

I always post what I buy online. I’m in the process of making a Facebook page and Instagram posts, and I keep documentation of funds. So, for everything that I buy, I keep documentation and I have a lot of information in my bank statements. So, if anybody ever wanted to audit that, every dime that someone sends me all goes to the pantry.

You mean you don’t go out and buy yourself a Mercedes with a little bit of the money you got in?

(Laughter) See, that’s the thing. I have two jobs of my own. I am a manager at Burger King and I work at the Foster Complex as a desk assistant. So, I am well taken care of.

What advice would you have for students at another college who would like to start up a food pantry at their campus?

The first thing I would is say to them is to establish a plan and know your worth. Then, always build connections and network with people. Because once you know your plan and try to implement it, then you can go get into action. If you do it, nine times out of 10, people are going to support you. I learned that this year. I thought I was starting something that was small, and it turned out to be something that was big. It was advertised on ABC, NBC, Tom Joyner. It was small to me, but it made a big impact.

And once you make a plan, what’s the next step?

Make a plan, then start pricing different things. Speak to your SGA; speak to your Vice President of Student Affairs, and go from there. Determine what you want to do and where you want to have your pantry. Then you can start seeking sponsors.

Who did you seek to sponsor your food pantry? Was it mostly friends and family?

Yes, and Facebook forums; people on Facebook. As of now, I have been asked to go on Rachel Ray, and they are going to put some things in my pantry. I then set up a GoFundMe account and people started donating. I raised over $1,200.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to someone who is thinking about starting up their own food pantry at their college?

Don’t give up. Sometimes it will feel like everything is not falling into place, but at the end of the day, you have to know what you want. You can’t just wait on somebody else to do it. Never wait for success; you have to take it. What I mean by that is don’t wait for somebody else to help you do it. You started off on your own … and even if you have to use your own money … you start it off on your own, and if you have the faith to do it, it will probably grow.

Editor’s note: According to the USDA, one in every four Americans rely on federal, taxpayer-funded food programs for assistance. However, it is clear that these programs leave several millions of people with poor service, less food than necessary to live, and high restrictions. Students like Justin prove what becomes possible if people are allowed more choice in taxation.

Join the tax revolution.