Food insecurity impacts individuals of all ages across the United States, and college students are no exception. In fact, according to a study conducted in part by the University Food Bank Alliance, nearly half of students will experience some level of food insecurity during their college careers as they struggle to balance tuition, housing, and the cost of living with their education.
Lyssa Murray, an international business and human resource management senior at University of Oklahoma (OU) and newly promoted general manager of the Best Western Plus West Lawrence in Kansas, learned of this issue when she became involved on campus with the OU Food Pantry and began working with Matt Marks, who started the pantry and serves as its graduate director. Murray also discovered another common misconception—while canned vegetables were important, the pantry had an abundance of those items. “It’s true that they need fresh food and food staples, but when we visited the OU Food Pantry, we realized something else was missing—there were virtually no toiletries or personal hygiene items available,” Murray says.
That’s when Murray, then front office manager at the Best Western Plus Norman in Oklahoma, approached her general manager, Linsey Kennedy. With the support of Hospitality Management LLC, which operates four Best Western-branded hotels in Oklahoma and Kansas, including the West Lawrence and Norman properties, Murray and Kennedy worked with the hotel’s vendors to purchase and donate more than 4,000 products to the OU Food Pantry this year, including shampoo, razors, body wash, mouthwash, deodorant, and other toiletries.
This is the second time one of Hospitality Management LLC’s properties has partnered with a local food bank. As part of its grand opening, the Best Western Plus West Lawrence raised funds to support Just Food in Lawrence, Kansas—the primary food bank in Douglas County.
“Instead of donating money, we were thinking we could make a bigger impact with being able to get [the OU Food Pantry] those items that they need,” Kennedy explains. “You think of food pantries needing food, but they had plenty of food. What they were really lacking in, and that nobody was really donating, was personal hygiene items. With our purchasing power, we were able to get those at a great deal and make those donations.” She adds that the hotel’s vendors, upon learning about its partnership with the OU Food Pantry, chose to donate several cases on top of the property’s purchase.
The hotel plans to make four total donations in 2019 and is working with the pantry to determine the best times to deliver those products. “We want to get it to them when they need it the most,” Kennedy says. “We do plan for it to be a continuing partnership between the two of us.”
In addition to the donation, the hotel partnered with the pantry to raise awareness among students and families. “One thing the food pantry really needed some help with was trying to get the word out so students know it’s there and that they have this great resource on campus,” Kennedy explains. “We had a sign made, which we have in our lobby, and have shared it on our social media to help them get the word out.”
Murray adds that the partnership is one more way the hotel is able to connect with its community. “We really wanted to be a part of the community—not just improve our hotel business, but improve everybody around us and make a lasting impact.”
When asked how other hotels can follow suit and step up to meet the local needs of their communities, Kennedy says that listening to employees is a key step. “Make sure that they are in an environment where they know they can come to you.” She added that managers should be transparent about the hotel’s objectives so that employees can offer their ideas. “Have those open conversations with your employees about what your goals are and what you want to do,” she says.
For her efforts at the hotel and in the community, Murray was honored by Best Western Hotels & Resorts with the 2018 Heroic Hospitality Stars Award. Out of 2,100 team members across Best Western’s North American properties, Murray was the only employee to receive the award. “Food insecurity knows no boundaries when it comes to age or education level,” Murray says. “There are so many family members coming to visit their kids who are attending the college. They are paying that money to us to stay with us. We’re doing our deed giving back to the college.”