University of Iowa launches campus food pantry

'I literally cannot afford food,' a student writes

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IOWA CITY — You can buy 12 packs of ramen noodles for $2.38 — or about 20 cents each — and a five-pack of macaroni and cheese for less than $1 a box.

But those stereotypical staples for generations of college students trying to scrape by are far from healthy. And with a growing body of evidence tying poor nutrition to academic and emotional struggles among students nationally, having healthier choices is taking on new importance.

With the support of student government and other donors, a group of students is working toward a solution: a food pantry for the campus.

“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,” said University of Iowa junior Ben Marks. “They were skipping meals and I saw the impact that was having on them.”

Marks, 20, is among students launching the pantry campus pantry for any student, staff or faculty member who can produce a campus ID. The Food Pantry at Iowa will become available as-needed in early June, and debut regular hours for the fall semester.

The project is the work of students and staff who convened in January to gauge the need for a pantry — sending out a campuswide survey that found nearly a quarter of respondents “sometimes to very often” don’t eat because they can’t afford to.

About 15 percent reported not eating for an entire day due to money problems, according to the survey. And 42 percent of the respondents reported experiencing poor health due to lack of affordable food.

“In the past month, there have been six days where I’ve gone completely without eating,” one student wrote, according to the UI Office of Sustainability.

The goal of the new pantry is not just to distribute free food but to provide some healthier choices than what students might otherwise be able to afford — like nuts, olive and coconut oil, beans, quinoa, couscous, oatmeal and milk alternatives like shelf-stable soy and almond milks, Marks said.

“We don’t want to give students ramen noodles or candy,” Marks said.

Eventually, he said, the pantry will offer fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers, but it’s starting with non-perishable items.

This summer, campus members can contact student directors by email or through social media to access the pantry. Come fall, the shop will open two days a week on the second floor of the Iowa Memorial Union.

Any student, faculty or staff member will be allowed to spend a certain number of “points” on food and toiletries once a week, Marks said. Points will be assigned based on a person’s family size — meaning students with children will get more points, for example. The items will be assigned point values based on demand and quantity.

With the new pantry, the university joins more than 300 other institutions that have campus-based food pantries, according to the College and Universities Food Bank Alliance. That alliance’s membership includes 10 of the 14 schools in the Big Ten Conference, some of which have pantries on multiple campuses.

Iowa State University also has a food pantry, The Shop, which opened in 2011 “to increase food security on campus and offer non-perishable food and other personal hygiene items to all ISU students and faculty/staff in need.”

The Shop in 2015 served between 60 and 110 students a month, and runs on donations from individuals, campus groups and churches, according to its website.

Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, reports about 10 percent of adults seeking food assistance are college students. In Iowa, 384,830 people are food insecure, a rate of about 12.4 percent, the organization said.

Johnson County, home to the UI, reports a higher rate of 14.1 percent.

The UI Student Government agreed to commit $10,000 to the new food pantry, and Marks said organizers have landed another $2,000 grant.

Table to Table, a food rescue and distribution agency in Iowa City, is providing items, as is the Solon Community Food Pantry, which gets pallets of Quaker Oats products from the factory in Cedar Rapids. Donation boxes will be installed across campus, said co-director junior Bridget Fonseca, 23.

Although sophomore Khari Whitmore, 20, said he doesn’t feel “food insecure,” he knows others who do struggle both to pay for nutritious food and gain access to it off campus.

“People maybe can manage it, but there’s the distance,” he said. “There are not many healthy choices right here, and people without cars can’t go far.”

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