"A lot of people believe that if you can afford to go to college, you can afford to eat. But we know that's not true," says Joelle Summers, team leader for Swoop's Pantry on the campus of Eastern Michigan University (EMU).
Most people don't think of college students when they think of food insecurity, but dozens of studies have indicated that a staggering number of college or university students struggle to get enough food.
In 2018, the national Government Accounting Office released a report that analyzed over 30 studies of food insecurity on campuses around the country. It found food insecurity rates ranging from 9% to 50%, with the average falling around 30%.
Nonprofits and university students and faculty in Washtenaw County are addressing that need in a variety of ways, from starting food pantries to advocating for policies that help students overcome systemic barriers.
Hardships and tradeoffs
Markell Miller, director of community food programs for Food Gatherers, says people have become more aware of the topic of college hunger in the last few years.
"People are finally understanding the hardships and tradeoffs students often face and how that can negatively impact learning and completion of a degree," Miller says. "When people have a limited income and no assets, no cushion, they have to make those spending trade-offs. Maybe if they're able to get to a pantry, then they can use the money they saved to spend on medical bills or to buy books."
She says awareness is often more acute on community college campuses. Food Gatherers has been partnering with Washtenaw Community College on this issue for a long time, offering gift cards and other emergency help to keep students in school.
Miller says it's hard to measure the problem of food insecurity on campuses. Colleges typically keep data on other facets of student income and socioeconomic status but they haven't traditionally asked students with lower incomes if they are food insecure, Miller says.
"There are screening tools available, but they're not being used," she says.
Additionally, food insecurity can arise from a variety of causes and can look different from student to student. For instance, a low-income student may not have missed a meal in the last week, but she might go to one or two campus meetings every week just to take advantage of the free food.
Food insecurity doesn't just arise from lacking financial means to purchase food, according to Jessica Thompson, program manager for the Maize and Blue Cupboard, the food pantry program at the University of Michigan (U-M).
"It could mean not having time to access food or not having transportation," Thompson says.
She notes that living on campus means the closest grocery store may be miles away.
"That means not only do you have to get on a bus but you need several transfers to get there, and then come home on the bus with your bags," she says.
Julie Colbath, a U-M graduate who manages volunteers and runs social media for the Maize and Blue Cupboard, says students often end up shopping at pharmacies on or near campus that have limited options.
"Being in college should not mean you need to survive on ramen," Colbath says. "It's time to dispel that romanticization of being a hungry college student. Just because you're trying to better your life by getting an education doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to take care of yourself."
Addressing needs, reducing stigma
EMU's food pantry was started by a social work student, Haley Moraniec, who was doing food insecurity research at EMU. The pantry opened in a room at Pierce Hall in 2015 and has now expanded into three rooms.
Summers uses terms like "control" and "dignity" when discussing how Swoop's Pantry is run.
"We use the term 'shopper' and we set it up like a mini-grocery store so that shoppers have control over the experience," she says.
At U-M, the Maize and Blue Cupboard started as a student organization offering a monthly food distribution, but there was often a long line for it. The experience didn't always feel dignified, and that's one reason the program transitioned to a stationary food pantry and a mini-grocery store model similar to EMU's this April.
At both locations, students have to fill out some intake paperwork and provide demographic information, but they aren't required to prove need. And there's no limit on how many pounds of groceries or personal care items a shopper can bring home.
Instead, shelves are labeled with suggestions such as "take up to two" or "take as many as you will use".
At Swoop's, when students bring back the reusable bag they receive on their first trip, they are entered into a raffle to receive a gift card for a grocery store or a restaurant. At the Maize and Blue Cupboard, a special shelf contains all the ingredients necessary to make a particular recipe that is highlighted each week, providing "passive education," Thompson says.
Thompson says it's important to provide more than just an emergency resource, so phase two of the Maize and Blue Cupboard focuses on advocacy, food education, and examining structural issues that contribute to food insecurity on campus.
The cupboard's space in the basement of Betsy Barbour dining hall is being built out with a teaching kitchen, conference room, and student administration office.
"It's one thing to provide food, but if you don't know what to do with it, there is still a need," Thompson says.
Colbath says the teaching kitchen could create opportunities for students hesitant to use the food pantry program.
"The teaching kitchen … will become another point of entry," Colbath says. "People who may not be comfortable coming straight into the cupboard space may feel comfortable attending a cooking class or taste test and then having a look around."
Both pantries offer frozen meat and seafood, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and personal care items such as toothpaste and tampons. They also both find ways to emphasize healthier plant-based choices while giving students the freedom to choose a few sweet treats as well.
Thompson says she's sometimes asked how the pantry prevents students from "abusing" the service, but both she and Summers say that's not really a problem.
Summers notes that sometimes a shopper will be allowed to take three items from a shelf, but they'll tell her, "I will only take one, so that leaves more for other people."
"This work touches my heart and soul," Thompson says. "I believe people come in and get what they need and take others into consideration."
Miller says she appreciates that programs at EMU and U-M seek to destigmatize the need that prompts students to visit the pantry. She says it can be hard to admit that you're food insecure when you're surrounded by peers who aren't struggling. It's important to "destigmatize and normalize it as something a lot of people go through," she says.
"It doesn't mean you're failing," she says. "Affording college, working, and juggling all those balls is hard, but there are resources out here to help you. If you have an unexpected expense, come to the pantry, and we can make sure you have access to healthy food so you can go to class."
Both pantries are supported by Food Gatherers and by donations from local grocery stores and food companies, but they also accept donations from the general public. The Maize and Blue Cupboard is currently only accepting monetary donations. Swoop's Pantry is currently accepting monetary and non-perishable food donations and is in need of additional volunteers.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.