Food pantries are sprouting up on college campuses across the nation, part of an emerging trend that’s beginning to shed light on a subject with little data so far: hunger and food insecurity among the college crowd.
At UNC Charlotte, college officials launched the Niner Food Pantry in September. From 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, students without university meal plans who live off-campus can make their way to Room 3135 in Colvard Building and select items from stocked shelves filled with donated nonperishable items, such as raisins, peanut butter and canned vegetables.
Food insecurity is hard to measure on college campuses, but most experts agree it exists to some degree.
A report last year from Feeding America, a national organization linked with 200 food pantries across the nation, estimated that college students make up 10 percent of their clients.
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Researchers at Western Oregon University have put the percentage of food bank use by college students closer to 60 percent.
UNC Charlotte officials – as well as those at several other universities within the UNC system that have launched campus food pantries within the past six months, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University – aren’t sure how big the problem is on their respective campuses.
“We don’t have a good sense of that now,” said Kim Buch, one of the organizers of the UNC Charlotte pantry. “That’s one of the things we’re hoping to learn as we collect data.”
Since September, Buch said, the pantry averages 30 to 50 visitors a week.
The catalysts behind the surge of campus food banks are many. Rising tuition in recent years, economic recession, unemployment among tuition-paying parents and unemployment among students are a few of the factors.
But Buch said other positive factors are also in play, including a more holistic approach to student well-being than in the past.
“Our biggest concern among universities is to attract good students and retain them for graduation,” said Buch. “Student performance is something we need to pay attention to.”
There’s also less stigma associated with asking for help these days.
“This is my second time. I came here in mid-December,” said Sehwan Kim, 21, a junior at UNCC who is majoring in mathematics with an education minor.
Kim makes do most weeks, he said, but when school is out, his campus job is also offline. He uses the pantry to fill his cupboards during those gaps.
“I’ll probably come one more time, because now that the semester is starting, I get to work and paychecks will be coming in.”
Buch said grants – such as one through Food Lion that provided $8,000 worth of food – have kept the pantry well stocked. Before winter break, they also were inundated with items from various campus-sponsored food drives.
Her chief concern is always to keep the supply ahead of the demand.
“Now we are flush with food, but by the middle of the semester or the end of the semester, we don’t know,” she said. “This is our learning curve.”
Next year, the pantry plans to introduce fresh produce through a partnership with Levine Scholars, who have established a campus garden.
Organizers also hope to move the pantry to a bigger space, to help spread the word to those who need it.
“We’d like to go where there’s more student traffic and visibility,” said Buch.