CHAMPAIGN — The shelves of the Newman Shares food pantry are a bit picked over on this Wednesday evening, though plenty of fresh-baked goods donated by Panera are still available.
“Oh, wow, stuff I like,” says regular customer Andrew Scheidler, sorting through his bag of food.
Scheidler isn’t homeless, or part of the working poor. He is a full-time college student at one of the nation’s top public research universities.
He and his three roommates, all seniors at the University of Illinois, stop by the pantry occasionally to stretch their monthly food budget, which is strained by tuition, books and rent.
“We live in a four-bedroom apartment, and food goes fast there,” said roommate Secilia Cox. “We don’t always have enough money to feed ourselves. So it’s nice to have somebody looking out for us, just to know that if we don’t have enough food, we can come here.”
The food pantry at St. John’s Newman Center, and a similar one at Parkland College, opened in 2013 to meet what food-bank officials perceived as a growing need. The Wesley Foundation’s Food Pantry, which operates the Parkland pantry, also started student-only hours this fall at its Urbana location near the UI campus.
College student “food insecurity” has received increasing attention nationwide as college costs have risen and campuses recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The demographics of students attending the university are changing,” said Katie Thomas, director of the Wesley Foundation’s food pantries. “It’s seeing a lot more first-generation, low-income students. Those will be the types of students who will struggle with having enough money to buy their food and books.”
The campus has put together a “food insecurity work group” to study the issue, led by Dawn Aubrey, associate director of UI Housing, who oversees dining services.
The UI also recently committed to “PUSH” — Presidents United to Solve Hunger — a partnership that started in 2014 between U.S. land-grant universities and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“It’s an increasing concern, or maybe I’m just hearing it more now,” said UI Professor Nancy O’Brien, who recently asked the campus Academic Senate to look into the issue. She has heard stories from colleagues about students who don’t have enough food, including some on cheaper meal plans in UI residence halls.
“They have told their supervisors at times that they’re really struggling to have enough food to make it to the end of the next cycle, of either when they get their money or the next month’s meals,” O’Brien said.
A Parkland problem
The scope of the problem is unclear. While there aren’t many studies on the topic, colleges are starting to do their own surveys of food insecurity.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year” — essentially, struggling to avoid hunger.
Judging by national data, only a small number of UI students likely fall into that category — perhaps 2 to 3 percent, or 1,500 at most, said Craig Gundersen, UI professor of nutritional sciences, who studies food insecurity nationwide. He developed Map the Meal Gap for the Feeding America website, an interactive tool that examines food insecurity rates by state, county or municipality.
“The University of Illinois is a very wealthy school,” Gundersen said, with an average family income above $113,500 a year, the average for those who receive financial aid. More than half pay the UI’s full sticker price ($15,000 and up for tuition and fees, plus room and board), and Gundersen said most could turn to their families for help if needed.
But food insecurity is probably “relatively high” at Parkland College, he said, which has many more students from lower-income backgrounds.
The Newman Shares pantry, which serves both UI and Parkland students, sees about 40 clients a month, mostly graduate students who are often picking up food for several people, said co-president Rachel Zwillig, a UI junior. It’s not open to students in residence halls, who have prepaid meal plans, she said.
The Parkland food pantry gets much more traffic — 253 households in September, according to Thomas — though it’s also open to the community as a USDA food-distribution site. It also gets many more students than Wesley’s regular Thursday-evening food pantry near the UI campus, she said.
Survey says …
Aubrey said the UI work group wants to find out whether food insecurity is a big problem on campus, and if so, what the “needs gap” is.
It’s particularly concerned about first-generation college students, who tend to be more dependent on loans and grants. With the added uncertainty about funding for the state’s Monetary Award Program grants, they are potentially at risk, Aubrey said.
About 21.6 percent of UI freshmen this year are first-generation students, up from 20.5 percent the past two years.
Nationally, researchers have found that some of those students will max out student loans so they can send money back home for a family emergency or illness, with little left for food or even housing in some cases, UI officials said.
Aubrey has personally helped out three students in that situation. In one case, the family home went into foreclosure because a parent lost a job and wasn’t able to keep up the mortgage payments, she said.
“To make a payment to try to stave off foreclosure, the student pulled the money out of their loan and sent it home,” she said.
Gundersen believes the biggest risk group is not students on full financial aid, who have tuition, fees, room and board covered. It’s the students just above them, who don’t qualify for as much aid, he said, as well as some international students.
The work group plans a survey of UI students in the spring to get a better handle on the numbers. It’s also finishing an inventory of food pantries and other resources and examining data about their customers, including how many part-time or full-time students participate.
A small informal survey in conjunction with the UI School of Social Work, which drew 700 responses, found that about 200 students said “they didn’t have enough to eat or knew a friend who didn’t have enough food to eat,” Thomas said. While it indicated a need, a more comprehensive survey is needed, she said.
If it’s just a few hundred students, the solution may be simply letting students know about the resources available, Thomas said. If it’s more, “we have to come up with strategies to address that.”
The ‘shame’ factor
Gundersen is leery of studies on other campuses that showed high food insecurity rates, saying they were “poorly done.”
He worries that the attention being paid to university students overshadows much larger food insecurity problems for other Americans — including janitors, food-service workers and other lower-paid employees at the UI.
“There’s a real problem with food insecurity in our community, in the country, and we have to address those issues,” he said. “We should be concerned about college students and try to figure out a way to help them out.
“But the problem is so small compared to what it is in other instances. We should be more concerned about those feeding the college students in the cafeteria, or the janitorial staff. They’re much more likely to be seeing food insecurity.”
One issue is the “shame factor” associated with asking for food, Aubrey said.
Thomas said the student-only hours were added at Wesley’s food pantry to make students feel more comfortable about coming there. So far, they’ve served only eight students in September and six in October, but it takes time to get the word out, she said.
‘A safety net’
The social-work survey showed that students didn’t want to “take away food from community members who were more in need than they were,” Thomas said. “Many students see it as kind of a right of passage: Oh, I survived on ramen noodles,” she said. “I was a student there myself, too. I was one of those eating mac ‘n’ cheese for lunch because that’s all I had.
“That isn’t the best food to be surviving on. That doesn’t meet your nutritional needs. It doesn’t make you the best you can be to be successful in school.”
Scheidler, the UI senior, said if he doesn’t eat right, he doesn’t do as well in school.
“We could actually survive on ramen noodles, or we could come here and get real food, substantial stuff,” said Cox, his roommate.
They didn’t discover the Newman Shares pantry until this year.
“It’s totally saved me from going really hungry,” said another roommate, Aiden Baker. “Knowing that this is here has been such a comfort.”
Cox said most of her discretionary money went toward books at the start of the semester.
“I remember crying to my mom because my bank account just went negative immediately,” she said. “Everything costs a lot more than I would have anticipated.”
Scheidler said his mom lost her job for nine months. He works 20 hours a week at a UI kinesiology lab, but said sometimes money runs low. With the food pantry, “you know you have a safety net, so you can focus on your academics.”
Student food pantries
— Newman Shares, 604 E. Armory Ave., C: Open from 5 to 7 p.m. the second, third and fourth Wednesday of the month.
— Parkland pantry, in the S Building behind the red barns along Bradley Avenue: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday, 10 a.m. to noon on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
— Wesley Foundation pantry, 1203 W. Green St., U: Student-only hours from 3 to 5 p.m. on the first Monday of each month.