Jars of peanut butter and packets of veggie chili mix sit on metal shelves in a white room, ready to be picked up by hungry University of Missouri students. But this place isn’t a supermarket or campus convenience store. This is a food pantry—MU’s Tiger Pantry, to be exact.
A food pantry. On a college campus? In Columbia? Yes. The rising cost of college and other higher education necessities can make students run short when it comes to food. Rachel Volmert, the director of Tiger Pantry, said this increasing financial burden makes some students think that they have to choose between paying for school or buying nutritious food.
“If you're skipping a meal so you can buy something for school or if you're eating ramen it's just on the back burner and you don't have any food in your house,” Volmert said, “you're probably food insecure because you don't know where your next meal is coming from or it's not necessarily nutritious.”
Being food insecure means that a person doesn’t have easy or steady access to safe or nutritious food. One in six Missourians were food insecure in 2014, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap project. Data from the same project state that more than 17 percent of Boone County residents were estimated to experience food insecurity.
Volmert said the pantry has given out about 140,000 pounds of food since it opened in 2012. Each month, more than 200 people pick up perishable and nonperishable food and personal care items. It’s an auxiliary of the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, and the only college-based resource of the food bank’s 133 partner agencies across 32 counties. MU students, staff and faculty are free to use the pantry. All that’s needed is a campus ID.
Janese Silvey, the communications coordinator for the food bank, said Tiger Pantry is the food bank’s only on-campus partner agency. However, she added that college students take advantage of the bank’s other pantries as well.
“I met a young woman who's in a nursing program, and she went to one of our mobile pantries in Fayette, and picked up fresh food there and told me she's from out-of-state,” Silvey said. “She has no support from her family financially, so she was really appreciative.”
Food insecurity isn’t limited to students at four-year institutions. In 2016, researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Hope Lab surveyed more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states about hunger and homelessness. They found that two out of three of the students were deemed food insecure for at least a month before the study.
Jed Richardson is the acting director of the Wisconsin Hope Lab. He said that while community college can be relatively inexpensive in many cases, associated costs like living expenses can have a strong impact on students’ financial well-being.
“It's not entirely a matter of how much college itself costs, but also that students need to still pay rent,” Richardson said. “They still need to buy food. Often they need transportation. And a lot of students need childcare for their own children. So, that is something that I think people are starting to come around on.”
The study also found that many of these students are working and trying to ease their financial burdens while in school. According to the findings, about 31 to 32 percent of students affected by food or housing insecurity were both receiving financial aid and working.
Institutions like MU and others are responding with resources like food banks and helping eligible students sign up for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. However, there’s still room to grow.
“I think the next step is how do we evaluate which of those programs are working or working best, most efficiently,” Richardson said. “I think that's the next step in the research cycle, is to really dive into these different programs and figure out what's working and how we can scale that up.”
Back at the Tiger Pantry, Volmert said their work can be hard when hunger that can be felt doesn’t match what can be seen.
“You don't know if the person sitting next to you is food insecure and they don't know if you are,” Volmert said. “It's really hard to tell a lot of the time that someone is facing that, so it can be hard to educate or to get people to talk about it, if it's something that they feel uncomfortable about.”
Invisibility isn’t the obstacle in the way of helping students. There’s still stigma tied to food insecurity and needing outside assistance. One of the pantry’s services that helps its clients avoid that stigma is its meal swipes program. Every week, participants receive a certain number of meal points, or swipes, that automatically appear on their MU ID cards. Users can then “swipe” their cards into any of the MU campus’ dining halls to get a meal. Just like any other student with a meal plan.
“It is great that they are on your normal ID," Volmert said. “The pantry is anonymous. You're a client. We don't say anything. We all sign agreements. It's important that you feel comfortable when you receive the food.”