Hundreds take advantage of University of Iowa food pantry

Food scarcity for students 'definitely a bigger problem' than many think

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IOWA CITY — One plastic grocery sack of peanut butter, canned mandarin oranges, apple juice and even carrot juice makes a big difference for Ericka Barloon, a University of Iowa sophomore in her first year on the campus.

She, like many other university students locally and nationally, knows well the steep price of higher education — and that it’s going up. She doesn’t waste money. She runs her own photography business, which she says is “doing quite well.”

And she lives in Mayflower Residence Hall, which is one of the few dorms on campus that offers a kitchen to its residents — and is a little more expensive. So she downgraded her meal plan and cooks as much as possible, most often using free food she picks up from the campus’ relatively new food pantry.

“Since I’ve been introduced to the food pantry here, I’ve gone grocery shopping once since I’ve been on campus,” Barloon, 19, said Wednesday after filling her bag at the pantry, which she typically does once a week. “This food pantry has roughly saved me about $1,000 a semester because I got such a low meal plan. It’s a really great resource, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Since the Food Pantry at Iowa opened in August 2016, nearly 400 different clients have tapped the resource — situated in a small room on the second floor of the Iowa Memorial Union. In this academic year alone, the pantry has seen more than 750 visits, averaging 60 a week.

In October, the pantry recorded 238 visits, distributed 2,515 pounds of food and received 2,496 pounds of donated items, according to Rachel Whitesitt, a UI student and food pantry manager.

The usage exemplifies the need, which one national study recently quantified in a “Hunger on Campus” report. Authors from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, College and University Food Bank Alliance, and the Student Government Resource Center found 48 percent of respondents reported food insecurity — defined as the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food.

The study, which surveyed 3,765 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities between March and May 2016, found 22 percent with “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.”

With tuition rates ballooning across the country — including in Iowa, where university presidents have pitched up to 7-percent annual rate hikes if lawmakers don’t increase appropriations — student activists say the issue is becoming more pressing.

In addition to the food pantry, the UI recently launched a “Hawkeye Meal Share” program that allows students to donate their unused guest meal plan swipes to any undergraduate, graduate or professional student on campus.

Iowa State University, like the UI, has a food pantry. It has been up and running since 2011, and averages 60 to 110 student clients a month.

A breakdown of clients to the UI food pantry shows most are female and most are full-time students. Usage seems evenly divided by year in school: about 23 percent are in their fourth year; 22 percent are in their third year; 21 percent are in their second year; and first-year and graduate students both account for 13 percent.

About 5 percent fall into the “faculty/staff” category, with 3 percent declining to say.

The split in living situation also seems relatively even — with 56 percent living off campus and 44 percent living on.

The pantry is open 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday and Thursday and 12:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Over winter break, because many students stick around, the pantry will remain open 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday.

The pantry stocks everything from the basics — milk, eggs, peanut butter and potatoes — to some specialties like gluten-free bread.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Whitesitt said, the pantry stocked some traditional fair — stuffing, gravy, corn, yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie ingredients. About 20 people stopped in over the break.

“We have had a lot of support from the community allowing us to serve those in the University of Iowa community that are food insecure,” Whitesitt said, noting the operation relies on donations.

Most popular items include perishable foods like produce, meats, and baked goods. Non-perishables that seem to go quickly include granola bars, pasta and hygiene items like toothpaste.

Those wanting to use the pantry have to show a student ID. They’re limited on what they can grab based on their situation — one bag for a household of one, or up to three baskets for a family of six. The pantry is run by volunteers, including UI freshman Ethan Hahn, 19.

He monitors the pantry every other Wednesday and reports a steady stream of traffic.

“I think it’s definitely a bigger problem than a lot of people would think,” he said. “It’s a resource that’s great for people to be able to use. It’s a help.”

Although he doesn’t use it and doesn’t have friends who do, he said plenty in his residence hall don’t have a healthy diet — whether by choice or from lack of money.

Barloon said she’s grateful not to have to sacrifice nutrition.

“I probably wouldn’t get as much fresh produce,” she said about the trade-offs she’d make without the UI pantry.

Lacking a car on campus, Barloon said she’d have to buy a bus ticket to go grocery shopping.

“And, at that point, all the things are obviously more expensive than free.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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