Battle Creek

Schools step up efforts to find food for college students who don’t have enough to eat

Hidden in plain sight inside buildings at Kellogg Community College are shelves and baskets containing non-perishable food items to be taken by students who experience food insecurity on a daily basis.

While checking on the food remaining at a location in the school’s Roll Building on a recent Friday, Alex Carlson, KCC’s Program and Events coordinator, expressed surprise at the amount of food that had gone out that day. She had stocked the area earlier that morning and said the rapid depletion is proof of the food insecurity facing many KCC students.

Conversations between KCC leadership and staff about ways to address this growing issue began well over a year ago and focused on setting up a food pantry. But, Carlson says, “We realized we needed to do something quicker” and the Bruin Basket initiative was launched in June at three locations on the main campus and one at the school’s Regional Manufacturing Technology Center on Hill Brady Road to provide something to eat for those students who otherwise do not have a reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. 

Student worker McKenzie Ryder fills Bruin Baskets. “Part of the challenge with food pantries is that you have to identify a need and people don’t like to admit they’re hungry,” Carlson says. “Our focus was to get food into students’ hands so they focus on their classes. Not all of the food we have available is healthy but it will get them through a class and onto the next thing.”

The Bruin Basket locations are intentionally placed in visible, but out-of-the-way areas to provide an element of discretion for those who use the service. They are stocked with portable snacks, including granola bars and packets of peanuts.

Donations of food and money to cover the cost of replenishing the Bruin Basket areas are coming from individuals and corporations in the community, including the Kellogg Co. A grant for $5,200 to purchase the shelving and other equipment for the basket stations and the initial supplies of food came from the Kellogg Community College Foundation.

More than $21,000 in cash contributions has been raised since the initiative began, says Teresa Durham, Executive Director of the KCC Foundation. She says KCC is establishing a membership with the Food Bank of South Central Michigan that will enable them to stock the Bruin Baskets with food purchased at a discounted rate.

Durham says she learned about the impact food insecurity was having on students when KCC faculty and staff talked with her about students who were coming into their classrooms having not eaten all day. She also had conversations with coaches who were sharing that their athletes were showing up to practices on empty stomachs.

“It was visible to the faculty, staff, and coaches by the students’ performance in the classroom or at practice,” Durham says. “Sometimes the students were sharing this information, but our faculty and coaches are prone to ask ‘Have you eaten today?'”

KCC is one of hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the United States that are taking action to ensure that students experiencing food insecurity have convenient sources of free food available to them. Before launching Bruin Baskets, Carlson says visits were made to Grand Rapids Community College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Western Michigan University to see how they were addressing students and hunger.

“If you work on a college campus, you see the need,” says Karen Lamons, co-chair of the Invisible Need Project and Assignment Supervisor for Residence Life at Western Michigan University. “You’ll see someone slipping a can of soup to someone or a couple of dollars to someone. We knew that was going on.”

The Invisible Need Project works to serve WMU students with unmet needs. Assistance available includes a Food Pantry, Student Emergency Relief Fund and Medical Emergency Fund.

The Food Pantry opened five years ago in a storage closet in the Faunce Student Services Building on the WMU campus. It was relocated to the building’s Kiva Room after that space underwent renovations. The Pantry is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday with varying hours and is staffed by a graduate assistant, Lamons, or Kelly Reed, who co-chairs the Invisible Need project with Lamons.

WMU has a campus in downtown Battle Creek and the second-largest aviation school in the United States at the W.K. Kellogg Regional Airport, Lamons says The Invisible Need Project doesn't have capacity to serve students at these locations.

Although KCC officials don’t yet have a way to track the number of students using their Bruin Baskets, at WMU, Lamons says that from July to June of this past fiscal year the Invisible Need Food Pantry had 675 unique student users and 1,940 visits overall during that time.

“We’ve had an 83 percent growth rate from 2017 to 2018 and from 2018 to 2019. We haven’t reached a plateau since we opened,” Lamons says.

Reed says, “For me, personally, the idea of hunger occurring among students at WMU was not surprising, but the volume of students using the food pantry was surprising.”

Teresa Durham, Executive Director of the KCC Foundation.Students seeking to access the Food Pantry must bring their WMU I.D. and check in. They are able to come in every two weeks.

Reed says she’s fielded questions from a handful of people expressing concerns about potential abuse of the Food Pantry. “There’s such a stigma around people using these resources that I’m not concerned about people abusing it,” she says.

Ramen noodles and canned soups and vegetables are staples on the food pantry’s shelves, but Lamons says she and her team try to also have an assortment of canned proteins, cereal, rice, pasta, peanut butter and jelly and portable snacks on hand. They receive produce from the Gibbs House, which partners with them, and they also receive donations of feminine hygiene products.

The items on the shelves are donated by individuals and businesses and through a membership with the Food Bank of South Central Michigan. Proceeds from the sale of Invisible Need T-shirts are one of the funding sources to pay for operation of the Food Pantry.

The growth of the Invisible Need donation base has happened organically with various departments throughout the campus holding food drives on an ongoing basis and an assisted living center nearby that brings in donated items every month.

“I wish I could tell you that we were so smart and focused in getting the message out,” Lamons says. “People just inherently want to help and we open a door for a way to do it.

“We’re so proud to be part of a university where food just appears. How amazing is it to be part of something where someone that just steps up and does it without being asked. We’re all volunteers, we don’t have someone in charge of making this happen. It just happens.”

This was the case with the university’s Director of Dining who switched from Coke to Pepsi as a beverage supplier and negotiated in the contract that they give annually to address food insecurity issues on campus.

“She didn’t ask us and we didn’t ask her to do this,” Lamon says. “She also supplied us with meal passes so that when the pantry’s not open people will have food passes.”

Prior to writing a proposal for the creation of Invisible Need, Lamons and her team visited a food pantry at Grand Valley State University which had been open for almost five years. They also gathered research from the College and University Food Bank Alliance. Membership in that organization increased from 15 in 2012 to more than 600 and counting today.

But how great of a problem is it? According to a survey released in 2018 by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36 percent of students at 66 surveyed colleges and universities did not get enough to eat, and a similar number lacked a secure place to live.

The report, which was the first to include students from two-year, four-year, private and public universities, found that nearly 1 in 10 community college students have gone a whole day without eating in the past month. That number was 6 percent among university students. 

The thousands of students it classified in the study as having "low food security" weren't merely avoiding the dining hall or saving lunch money for beer, they were skipping meals, or eating smaller meals, because they didn't have enough money for food.

KCC is one of hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the United States that are taking action to ensure that students experiencing food insecurity have convenient sources of free food available to them.With an annual student enrollment of 8,400, Eric Greene, KCC’s Chief Information Officer, says, “This is a national issue that college campuses are having to deal with because the poverty is there and students need to eat.”

He says that many of the students at KCC come the community college right out of high school and if they experienced food insecurity during their years in elementary, middle, and high school they had access to free or reduced breakfast and lunch.

“They come to college and it’s a very different scenario,” Greene says. “There’s definitely a need with the population we serve within our student body to have some ability to eat healthy food and get it at low or no cost."

While it’s been heartening to see the positive response and support from students and staff at KCC and the greater Battle Creek community for the Bruin Basket initiative, Durham says, “We’ve seen a dynamic change in where students get their food.”

Researchers who worked on that 2018 study say food insecurity issues on college campuses is not new, but it is increasing because of the steady escalation of the cost of going to college, inadequate aid packages, and growing enrollment among low-income students, in addition to many colleges’ reluctance to admit that hunger issues exist on their campuses.

Durham says she was encouraged by discussions this past summer during a conference of Michigan’s community college that focused on the importance of support services for students, in addition to the focus on instruction of these students.

“It heightened the awareness, but also the strategy-building around taking care of students,” she says. “That excited me.”

KCC has an emergency fund for students through the KCC Foundation that provides funds for emergency situations such as a car breaking down, prevention of a utility shutoff, or to cover a rent payment. Students either self-identify as having a need for these funds or are directed there by staff with the school’s Financial Aid office or other individuals. Durham says they can make an application for one-time assistance.

There is no maximum amount given out. On average, Durham says, the awards have been anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000.

But, she says, this is a band-aid approach. “So we have to start thinking about looking at other community agencies to work with.”

Reed agrees the approach to addressing these issues has to go deeper.  “In all areas of Invisible Need we are looking at how to help with immediate needs, but also how to have systemic change that goes to the root of these concerns,” Reed says. “We are having conversations with other campus leaders.”

She says she has proposed working on an assessment to gauge the true levels of need.

“We know that INP (Invisible Need Project) is meeting some of those needs, but we want to know what are some of the obstacles to success, we didn’t want to make assumptions,” Reed says. “We know the needs are growing because housing and tuition costs are increasing. We have students who aren’t even able to get the lower level covered with housing, food and the basics.”

Greene says officials with KCC simply want to ensure that those students who need food have easy access to it as one more way to remove barriers to learning and thriving. 

“We at KCC are very intentionally trying to become an equity-minded organization. This initiative is one of those ways. Whoever you are and whatever your ability, we will do what we can to provide you with what you need. That is the definition of meeting people where they are and meeting you where you are.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.