With student debt on the rise nationally and student nutrition a growing concern, a group of University of Iowa students and staff met last winter to discuss developing the first UI campus food pantry.
The goal was to make it easier for the UI community — including students, faculty and staff — to feed themselves in a healthy way. Or just to feed themselves period, said one organizer, senior Benjamin Marks.
“One of the reasons I first looked into the idea of a food pantry was because I saw friends of mine struggling to eat and students eating peanut butter every single day,” Marks said in May. “They were skipping meals and I saw the impact that was having on them.”
The plan was to launch the “Food Pantry at Iowa” over the summer, making it available as needed in early June and debuting regular hours in the fall. To access the summer pantry, on the second floor of the Iowa Memorial Union, organizers said prospective clients could contact them by email or through social media.
Interested students, faculty or staff members would be allowed to spend a certain number of “points” on food and toiletries a week, according to Marks. The number of points allowed per person would be assigned based on family size. Those with children or a spouse would get more, and items would be assigned values based on demand and quantity.
What’s happened since
The summer food pantry didn’t happen “because of some roadblocks,” Marks said. For starters, as a student organization, it didn’t automatically qualify as a non-profit, which is necessary to get donations from Table To Table and The Crisis Center of Johnson County.
Marks, who was not in town over the summer, said the group ironed out that wrinkle by using a different tax identification number. But working through that and other details took time.
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“I know that there were people that could have used this thing this summer when we weren’t open,” he said.
But the pantry did officially open on the first day of the fall semester, and Marks said so far it has had six clients and has distributed 80 pounds of food.
“It seems like a small number, but we are happy with it,” he said. “We want more, but our biggest worry was we would have no one.”
The pantry is open 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays and 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays and it accepts donations between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Fridays. Clients are asked to fill out basic information the first time “because we want to know who is coming,” Marks said.
Family size still is used to gauge the amount of supplies allowed, but Marks described a simpler system — users can fill one reusable bag per person in the household. So far, all the users have been undergraduate students, an even male-female split.
Popular items have been things like pasta, soup, canned vegetables and oats. But, Marks said, users also have gone for produce with longer shelf lives — like potatoes and watermelons — and they’re looking for products that accommodate special dietary needs.
“We have had people who have come here specifically because they have food allergies,” he said. “When you are talking about things like coconut milk and almond milk, people don’t always think about donating those things. But healthy food can sometimes mean more expensive food.”
Marks said he expects pantry use to grow as word spreads.
“The need is there,” he said. “From our research, the need in the graduate student population is probably greater than the undergrad.”
How to give:
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Bring donations to the pantry at the IMU between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Fridays. Anyone wanting to donate money can send checks or cash to:
Student Org Business Office; Food Pantry at Iowa; 159 Iowa Memorial Union; Iowa City, IA 52242
Checks should be addressed to Food Pantry at Iowa.