College Food Pantries Keep Students from Choosing Between Food and Books

Two volunteers stand smiling in a college food bank
February 16, 2018
by Colleen Callahan


Twenty-five years ago, Bea Mott, a retired secretary to two former presidents of Michigan State University (MSU) noticed a problem. Some of the students she worked with weren’t getting enough to eat. During the holidays, Bea organized meal basket distributions –  but she came to see that hunger was a problem all year round. She brought the issue up to the graduate student government, and together, they brought the idea for a college food pantry to the administration. Thus, the MSU Student Food Bank, the first college food pantry run by students for students, was born.

The MSU Student Food Bank is the longest-running college food pantry in the U.S. It has pioneered a movement and highlighted an issue that has long-been hidden – college student hunger

“When Bea and the students started the food bank, one of their biggest issues was convincing people that college students actually faced hunger,” said Nicole Edmonds, MSU Student Food Bank’s director. “People seemed to think that if you could afford to go to college, you could afford food. But that’s not the case. And as tuition prices continue to increase, the need is increasing as well.”

Today, the MSU Student Food Bank – a partner of Feeding America member Greater Lansing Food Bank –  serves around 6,000 students and their families annually. Last year alone, it distributed 120,000 pounds of food with the help of nearly 800 students, faculty and alumni volunteers. Its work has helped a number of other universities begin pantries as well – like George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C.

“We started the food pantry after a graduate student read about college hunger,” said Tim Miller, associate dean of students, who helps run the GW pantry with the help of a student group. “Honestly, at first I didn’t believe that we needed it – but he kept pushing. Eventually, we did a survey and found that an astounding 40% of students struggled with hunger in some way throughout the month. Hunger can force students to choose between books and food, and even hold them back from receiving an education.”

Tim opened the campus pantry in the fall of 2016. That first month they served 85 students, but by the end of the year, they were serving more than 600. He hopes to keep reaching more students, in part, by continuing to combat the social stigma.

“We know that the stigma attached to using a pantry can keep students from seeking help,” said Tim. “So, we do as much as we can to eliminate that by operating our pantry on the values of faith, trust, and respect.”

“We have faith that if a student says they need help, they need help,” Tim continued. “We only ask for their student ID number and email to pick up food. The pantry isn’t staffed – students can enter it with their ID badge, and we trust that they will take only what they need. In terms of respect, we try to keep the experience anonymous by locating the pantry in an accessible, but off-the-beaten-path location.”

The MSU Student Food Bank has similar values. “We know there’s still a lot of MSU students in need who we’re not yet reaching,” said Nicole. “Combatting stigma is one way to reach them, but we’re also trying other innovative branding and awareness practices.”

One of these practices is training university health service providers to recognize and screen for food insecurity – food insecurity is one way we can measure and assess the risk of hunger. Nicole and a colleague, Anne Buffington, nutrition program coordinator, conducted the trainings this past year, and so far, it has enabled the pantry to reach several students who might otherwise have gone without. 

“At MSU, we’re committed to ending college hunger – on our own campus and across the country,” Nicole added. “We need to continue to not only feed students, but bring awareness to this overlooked issue so that we can create systemic change. Our hope is for a future where no one has to choose between buying food and going to school, and consequently, a future where higher education will be an opportunity more accessible to all.”

It is important for us to recognize that hunger can impact all people at various stages of their lives. There are a number of ways you can help combat the issue and stigma of hunger.


Two notes from college students thanking the college food pantry for helping
The above note reads "This is wonderful. I'm a first-generation student and have skipped meals and survived on oatmeal packets for years. Thank you so much" and "Thank you so much for the relief you bring me and others. Unless I am on my last penny during the month sending me money from home is not easy and I tell my mom I am fed even though I live on just oats. Thanks for giving me my health and the relief that I needn't go hungry."