How Two Colleges Are Fighting Food Insecurity on Campus

A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers brought in a Costco-sized box of ramen noodles for the office to share, as she was gifted more than she could eat.

As a few of us huddled around the kitchen making our free lunches, we joked that we felt like we were in college again. It made me thankful that I rarely ate ramen in college; I was an RA so I had a meal plan and as much as I complained about the food, I knew I always had access to at least fruit, vegetables, coffee (that’s a major food group, right?), grains, and the best ice cream in the world.

Although money was tight, I knew that at the very least I had a place to stay and food to eat, but not every student can say the same.

Recently there have been a lot of studies on food insecurity, especially on college campuses.

According to the USDA, 12.3% of US households are food insecure. While it’s hard to say exactly how many students in higher education currently experience food insecurity, studies have reported the range is anywhere from 14.1 to 58.8% in undergraduate students alone.

That's not good gif

But let me back-up a bit, because those of you who didn’t study nutrition or sociology might be wondering what food insecurity actually means.

Food insecurity: The state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

— The Oxford English Dictionary

In this definition, access can mean that there is no way for someone to travel to a grocery store, but another interpretation is a lack of funds for food.

So how does this impact student affairs? Take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Maslow's hierarchy with wifi and battery

While it might sometimes seem that WiFi and battery are the ultimate needs, physiological needs being met are the true foundations of success.

Without them, students have a hard time focusing in class because they are preoccupied with hunger and thinking about how they are going to get food. Physically, the body simply needs nutrients for optimal cognitive function. When a student is spending all day learning, they need food to use their brain most effectively and remember everything they are learning.

Food insecurity is a topic being addressed on many campuses, but it still carries a stigma. Just recently I was scrolling on Facebook and noticed a friend’s post about a student on their campus:

Even students who can get scholarships, financial aid, and a meal plan from campus might be struggling with food insecurity.

Luckily this student has someone supporting them, but it made me wonder: what resources are out there for students who don’t have someone rallying for them? This video the Today Show posted tells the story of one first-generation college student from Florida who is trying to make ends meet.

Many schools have started a food pantry in response to national data that shows that food insecurity is a large, yet often unseen, issue on college campuses. Of course, starting a food pantry from scratch can be a huge challenge.

Nevertheless, food pantries can be an incredibly helpful resource for students who are struggling with food insecurity. We reached out to some institutions who are focused on fighting food insecurity on their campuses to learn what tips they had to share.

Online Ordering

Wilkes University has set up a semi-anonymous form that allows students to seek help, even if they might feel embarrassed about it. Students simply fill out a form which verifies that they are a student, and then they “shop” what food items they need based on the options in the pantry and the limitations outlined (such as being required to select up to two different cans of fruit).

When the boxes are filled, they get delivered to the front desk of the student union and the student gets an email that they have a package waiting for them. They are able to pick up the unmarked package from the desk.

“It’s really no different than walking out of our student center with a package from the mailroom.”

— Kristin Osipower, Interfaith Coordinator at Wilkes University

The form system allows students to shop the pantry without actually entering the space, effectively reducing a barrier to entry for students who are embarrassed about their needs.

Polling at Events

The next step for Wilkes is collecting more data about their campus’ needs. Kristin is looking into polling students who attend events that support the food pantry. This would give her a more accurate pulse of the Wilkes campus, rather than just relying on national data.

Having data specific to your campus or institution can help you know what your institution’s true level of need is. It can also serve to gather helpful information about how students would want to pick-up food from a food pantry and how much food should be kept in stock at all times.

Tracking Attributes

Aims Community College uses Presence to track who is coming to Arty’s Pantry on their Greeley campus, which is their main campus. They have students swipe-in to the pantry, automatically verifying that they are a current student (which is the only requirement to use the pantry). This allows the staff running it to track behaviors and trends about the populations who are using it. For instance, Aims has found that 52.4% of the students who have used the food pantry identify as Hispanic. 

Aims Community College food pantry ethnic demographics

Aims Community College separates race and ethnicity into two unique categories, allowing them to not only see the ethnic breakdown of who is utilizing the pantry (as shown above), but also the demographic breakdown by race.

This information will be helpful in allowing them to compare these usage demographics to their overall enrollment data to learn if there is a discrepancy between the two so that they may better tailor their advertisement to students who need the pantry most.

Gathering data has also been particularly helpful, as this was the pilot year for Arty’s Pantry. This allows them to know if they need to change what times the pantry is accessible to their students in order to provide the most benefit. 

Mobile Pantry

Patrick Call said that this past year was just the start of Arty’s Pantry. The next step is to bring it to all four of their campuses! He is looking into a way to make the food pantry mobile so he can do pop-up events at each of their campuses on different days of the week. They have had enough donations from their staff (they offer an option to donate through a payroll deduction!) so supplying it has not been an issue at all. In fact, the opposite has been an issue.

“One of our biggest challenges is that we got so much food up front, it’s hard to make sure we get it to students before it expires.”

— Patrick Call; Executive Director of Student Activities, Inclusion, and Leadership at Aims Community College

How is your campus battling food insecurity?

Of course, there is no one way to solve hunger on college campuses. Every campus is unique and therefore will have their own unique challenges. Regardless, food pantries are one way to help your students have access to nutritious food. For more resources, you can check out these organizations:

Keep the conversation going on Twitter @themoderncampus and @TriciaTimney if you have any creative food insecurity solutions that you’d like to share from your campus!

Tricia Timney

About the author: Tricia Timney (she/her) is a freelance writer, coffee lover, marathon runner, amateur curler, and world traveler. She is also the founder and CEO of SLNG Consulting LLC, which aims assist eateries with gluten-free operations, marketing and customer service best practices. Learn how we can help get your students involved.