Shelving Hunger

The difficult economy prompts students to create campus food banks for use by their peers.
February 3, 2011

Lots of college students don't eat well, but some don't eat much at all.

A shaky economy with an uncertain job market is the reason more and more students say they’re coming to the aid of their peers by setting up campus “food pantries,” which are surging in popularity. This week alone, two pantries are opening, at Iowa State University and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; another opened about four weeks ago at the University of California at Davis. At some universities that already have food banks, grad students are prominent among those who use the services.

“Because prices in college keep on climbing and we don’t really have much control over that, students are trying to figure out other things to help each other,” said Hailey Boudreau, a sophomore at Iowa State University who, along with fellow sophomore Sarah Schwanebeck, opened The SHOP (Students Helping Our Peers) on Tuesday. “We understand as college students, college isn’t as affordable right now so we need to find other ways to cut back.”

With the help of The SHOP, students at Iowa State might not have to cut back quite so much. The pantry will be open three hours a day, one day a week, for students who can’t afford meals and can’t commute to the local food bank. Donations to this pantry – as is the case with others – will come mainly from students and staff on campus. The SHOP grew out of an open-ended volunteering assignment. Boudreau and Schwanebeck poked around and discovered that college students weren’t using the community food bank, despite the fact that Iowa State had 5,000 students receiving need-based Pell Grants. They compared those findings with other, larger institutions that have student food banks and found that their need ratio was comparable; to Boudreau and Schwanebeck, this was an opportunity.

While the Iowa State students didn’t really consult established campus pantries for guidance, many others do. At Michigan State University, where the first known campus food bank was established in 1993, health education coordinator Dennis Martell has seen inquiries steadily increase over the years, particularly in recent ones. The interest is not limited to certain types of colleges, either, said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the Student Food Bank at Michigan State. “We do get a lot of inquiries,” he said, “from a lot of different campuses.” Those range from small liberal arts colleges, to flagship research universities, to community colleges. “Across all sectors and institution size and scope, it seems to be a trend that is continuing.”

The rising interest corresponds with students becoming more focused on financial issues, Martell said. In last year’s National College Health Assessment, 35.2 percent of students reported that within the past 12 months, finances were “traumatic or very difficult to handle” (and that percentage doesn’t include the students who selected finances in addition to other factors, such as family problems or personal health). The only thing students reported as more difficult to handle was academics.

According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the proportion of low-income young adults enrolled in college has been increasing over time, particularly among some minority populations. In 2008, 15.5 million young adults were from families living at, near, or below the poverty line, and nearly 60 percent of them were attending a college or earned some sort of degree during that time. Those data, of course, don’t reflect student incomes from the last few years, during which they have likely worsened.

The two biggest financial issues facing college students – joblessness and education cuts – are hitting some students especially hard. Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democrat of California, last month as part of his budget plan proposed a $1.4 billion cut for the state’s public higher education institutions. But even before that, students at the University of California at Davis were feeling the budget crunch, said junior Hannah Kirshner, co-founder of The Pantry, which opened on the campus about three weeks ago. “People we knew personally, and just our experience being here, led us to believe this is something that was needed,” she said. With California in financial crisis and students struggling to land jobs, and 3/4 of Davis students reporting in an institutional survey that they had skipped meals at least "rarely" in the past year to save money, Kirshner and Davis senior Justin Gold decided to act. “Everything was kind of combining and coming to a head, and we realized a lot of students around here were really struggling and trying to balance these costs.” (In the Davis survey, 23 percent of students said they skipped meals "somewhat often," "often" or "very often," and some commented that they stole food or skipped meals daily to afford college.)

Therein lies the problem for many students, Martell said. “Students have a choice between buying books for a class – that they need to pass the class – or buying food. And you know they’re going to buy books.”

Julia Lyon, who is among the students opening Full Circle Food Pantry at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville today, wants to challenge that dichotomy. “If students are trying to decide between their hunger needs and education, they should be able to choose both,” she said. “A generation or two ago, a college education was a luxury. And today it’s not so much of a luxury. It’s something that you would be willing to sacrifice for. When speaking with members of the older generations, we come across people who have the opinion that college students need to drop out of school and spend their tuition money on other necessities. We don’t see it that way. We see education as a necessity.”

Lyon did have a hard time selling the pantry idea at first. When she pitched it to Fayetteville’s Volunteer Action Center board – a group of 30 students who organize service opportunities – some of them didn’t believe their peers would use it, or that there was even a need for such a service. But once word of the idea got out, students started visiting the center’s office to say they or someone they knew could use it. “We pretty much came to the conclusion that it needed to happen,” Lyon said. “There was a need that needed to be met.”

While the need has existed for decades, it hasn’t always been acknowledged – and, as Lyon’s experience shows, still isn’t, by some. When Martell started forming the Michigan State food bank 20 years ago, he said, not everyone wanted to admit that students might have an issue with getting enough food. “There was a lot of reluctance on the part of university administrators to acknowledge that this was a legitimate need for students,” he said. “Back then the perception was that if you’re going to college, you’ve got enough money. So why would we need to have a food bank on campus?” As it happens, Martell did have the support of some students and powerful administrators – including Lou Anna K. Simon, then provost and now president.

Simon, while arguing that institutional support was more broad than Martell suggested, agreed that there may be resistance from some. "I think we're a society that doesn't necessarily want to recognize everyone's problems," she said. "We [at Michigan State] pride ourselves on access across socioeconomic class. We recognized that we had single parents, students from family incomes of $10,000 or less who were making critical choices about the way in which they could eat, live, go to school. And we felt that these individuals were important members of our community, and this was a way the community could help to make those choices easier."

More than 200 Michigan State students volunteer at the food bank each year, distributing 38,000 pounds of food annually to 4,000 people. About 60 percent of those who use the food bank are graduate students, and the majority have families. The only requirements of those who take food – called "clients" – is that they be enrolled Michigan State students without an on-campus meal plan. As is the case at other food banks, the organizers are sensitive to clients' privacy, so they don't ask a lot of questions – creating an opening for students to abuse the system. Martell said he's been concerned about that since the food bank opened, but he focuses on the positive. "For that percentage that do scam us, we have the people who do come and need it," he said. "We don't want to turn away people who don't want to go to the [community] food bank."

For first-year Ph.D. student John Bonnell, a father of three young children, the Student Food Bank was a pleasant surprise. He didn't know about it when he started at Michigan State this fall, but he's been getting food every other week for three months. He estimates that each visit to the bank saves his family about $80. "That's real money," he said. "We're trying to make ends meet and the food bank really helps with that." Bonnell and his wife, who is not a student, both work part-time jobs.

The Pantry at UC Davis has a "strict no-questions-asked policy" so Kirshner doesn't know the make-up of its clients, but enough graduate students contacted her about the service that, although the concept was originally to serve undergraduates, she wound up opening it to everyone. When the Pantry opened almost a month ago, it served about 20 students a day; now it's averaging between 50 and 60 daily. And Kirshner's hoping the food bank has the longevity of Michigan State’s.

“I’m of course hoping that this will be something on the UCD campus for years to come, or at least as long as it’s needed,” Kirshner said. But she’s not taking the pantry trend for granted. “A lot of times with new projects you get an outpouring of support and people are really excited, but the challenge is maintaining that support and making sure people are still willing to give in the years to come.”


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