Five years ago, there were five food pantries on college campuses. Now there are 121, according to Michigan State, which has been operating its MSU Student Food Bank since 1993.
When you’re preparing dishes that yield 50 servings, you don’t often stop to consider hunger. After all, you’re surrounded by available calories that your customers are welcome to indulge in—as long as they’ve purchased a meal plan.
But where do those in your populace who can’t afford a meal plan go for food?
“Today’s students are tasked with earning perfect grades, being active with extracurriculars and holding down a job,” says Lauren McDermott, Director of the Tiger Pantry at the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). “Tuition is rising. Cost of living is rising. Debt is growing. Everything is working against us.”
In response, college students are increasingly turning to a new kind of campus dining: food pantries. And dozens, like Mizzou’s Tiger Pantry, are cropping up at universities across the country.
“Food is a privilege,” says McDermott. “We hope to change the perception of hunger on campus and offer resources to students, faculty and staff so that they can focus on the experiences uniquely available at Mizzou.”
Feed the Need
Tiger Pantry is a “non-judgment zone,” explains McDermott, which provides food assistance for those in need within the university’s community. Currently Mizzou’s campus dining program doesn’t actively interface with Tiger Pantry, but those tides might be turning.
“We’re working with campus dining services to hopefully create a voucher meal system,” says McDermott.
Last fall, George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, launched a voucher meal program dubbed The Student Meal Assistance Fund. It was created by two students, Yara el Mowafy and Jordan Bivings, who were initially looking for a way to redirect unused meal swipes as part of a class project.
The idea of redirecting unused meal money fell through when the system of meal cards was changed to a flat fee. Instead, the students, partnering with Mason Dining, created a university account dedicated to collecting monetary donations to buy meals for students who lack the funds necessary to purchase sustenance. In fact, Sodexo, the school’s foodservice provider, helped to establish the fund by making a $1,000 donation.
Until Mizzou can get some kind of collaboration up and running, McDermott and her team encourage students to use surplus swipes at campus convenience stores to buy non-perishable foods they can donate to the pantry.
It’s not a perfect alliance, but it’s a start.
“As a foodservice director, food insecurity is not something I really considered,” says Randy Lait, CASP, Senior Director of Hospitality Services at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, who serves on the advisory board for NC State’s food pantry. “It’s been enlightening to hear the stories of food insecurity within our small community.”
Two Players, One Pack
University Dining at NC State uses the tagline “We Feed the Pack.” So when Lait came across an ad in the school newspaper referencing a pantry touting the same slogan, it stopped him in his tracks.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Is that necessary here?’” says Lait. “As a department, we’ve done hunger fighting initiatives and drives, but they tend to be more community based. It never occurred to me that our own students might be struggling with these kinds of issues.”
Lait reached out to the executive director of the pantry, who encouraged him to join the advisory board.
“My primary role has been to help guide the students as they’ve established the pantry’s structure and operation,” he says. “My foodservice experience has helped them better gauge how many volunteers they’ll need to staff different events as well as how to handle donations, apply for grants and find better physical space on campus.”
Feed the Pack Pantry is a choice food pantry geared toward the entire NC State community. “We serve students, faculty and staff, and are open to any member of our community who walks through our doors,” says Amanda Dango, executive director. “The pantry was founded in November 2012 by students and is run by students, so we embrace a ‘by the community, for the community’ approach.”
According to Dango, Lait has been an especially useful connection for the pantry because his reach is much further than the students. “He’s been instrumental in helping us to get the word out as well as streamline our operations and increase fundraising efforts,” she says.