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Michigan leads nation in fighting hunger on campus

Aug 31, 2015

Credit Photo courtesy of Nate Smith-Tyge

Regular State of Opportunity readers and listeners can probably rattle off a list of different barriers low-income, first-generation, and/or homeless college students face on campus. One that often goes unnoticed and forgotten is something too many college students face on a daily basis: hunger.

I’m not talking about the pesky hunger pangs that rise in your stomach between lunch and dinner. I’m talking about real food insecurity, where students might not know how they will pay for their next meal - or if they are going to eat at all.

Students facing food insecurity at Eastern Michigan University will soon have a new resource: a food pantry right on campus. Multiple Michigan institutions already have one: Michigan State University, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint campus locations), Saginaw Valley State University, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Grand Valley State University, Finlandia University, and Delta College, just to name a few.

Michigan State University's food bank serves 4,000 students a year.
Credit Photo courtesy of Nate Smith-Tyge

When it comes to combating food insecurity on campus, “Michigan is one of the nation’s leaders,” says Nate Smith-Tyge. He's the director of the Michigan State University Student Food Bank, which was the first on-campus food pantry in the entire country when it opened back in 1993. Smith-Tyge is also co-founder of the Campus and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), a national network of college food pantries across the country. “Institutions are really beginning to recognize that this population of food insecure and couch-surfing students has always been there,” says Smith-Tyge. “They’re just now starting to see it.”

Why put a food pantry on a college campus?

  • Turbulent economy: Michigan has more on-campus food pantries than most states, which Smith-Tyge says is a direct result of the state’s economy: “The economic pressure we experienced acutely in the state led to a lot of the programs." It also led to an increase in visitors for existing pantries. MSU’s food pantry normally serves about 4,000 students every year but back in the height of the Great Recession, they served more than 5,600.

  • Rising tuition costs: Smith-Tyge says rising tuition costs is BY FAR the biggest issue contributing to food insecurity. Another is rising food prices on and around campus.

  • Location, location, location: Many colleges and universities are located in a “food desert” where most available dining options are expensive or unhealthy (or a combination of the two). Plus, college students often have limited transportation options, making it difficult to get to the community-based food resources in the area (which they may not qualify for, anyway).

  • Super expensive meal plans:  There are meal plans available to students for purchase, which most freshmen who live on campus are automatically using. For a commuting student though, meal plans are incredibly expensive. At EMU, the cheapest add-on meal plan option - which includes just 8 meals a week - is $2,275 per semester. That money is due up front, which is hard to swing on a college student budget. “It’s  not really accessible for a lot of people,” says Smith-Tyge.

  • Limited access to food assistance programs: Back in 2011, Michigan made it more difficult for college students to qualify for the Food Assistance Program, (food stamps). The state's new guidelines require students to keep a hectic schedule - working 20+ hours a week at a part-time job while attending school - to qualify.

It isn’t easy to start a food pantry on campus, even with the many reasons why it makes sense. EMU student Haley Moraniec has been trying to get the idea circulating on her campus for years.

Moraniec's request was originally met with opposition. After drafting a long proposal, she was bounced between a few different departments with no success. It wasn’t until she partnered with the head of the Social Work department that her plans got off the ground.

EMU's food pantry - called Swoops - will stock its shelves for the first time this fall.
Credit Photo courtesy of Haley Moraniec

The pantry will open this year on the third floor of EMU’s Social Work building. “It’s a small space, but it’s a starting point,” says Moraniec.

The pantry is available to all EMU students. If a faculty or staff member needs help, the pantry will serve them but staff will  refer them to another community resource. The pantry - like many others on Michigan college campuses - will depend on donations, food drives, and community partnerships to keep its shelves stocked.

Getting the pantry started was just the first hurdle for Moraniec. Next up: helping students get past the shame of being hungry. “It’s going to be interesting, because there’s so much stigma around it,” she says. Smith-Tyge agrees;  when MSU promotes their food pantry at resource fairs “there’s always some initial hesitancy.”

Credit Photo courtesy of Nate Smith-Tyge

One way MSU gets around the stigma is promoting the pantry as just another service they offer to students to enhance their success. “It’s all about making sure the other issues in student’s lives are met so they can focus on and be successful in their academics,” says Smith-Tyge.

Of course, having a food pantry doesn’t magically remove the barriers many low-income, first-generation, and homeless students face on campus. “It’s part of a whole equation,” says Smith-Tyge. “It isn’t going to solve everything, but it’s going to help.”

If you know of a food pantry at a college or university that wasn’t listed in this article, let us know at brittany@michiganradio.org or in the comment section below.