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Hunger 101: food pantries at Arkansas universities

They serve students, staff.

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FEEDING THE TROJANS: Betsy Hart, of UALR's Campus Community Connection, fills a bag at the school's new pantry.
  • FEEDING THE TROJANS: Betsy Hart, of UALR's Campus Community Connection, fills a bag at the school's new pantry.

Most people likely think of college as a time when the only food-related decision young people struggle with is pizza, tacos or beer? However, hunger on campus is a real and growing problem across the nation. As a June 2015 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, a survey by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, found that of the college students who rely on food banks in the Feeding America network, 49.3 percent reported they sometimes had to choose between buying food and paying for school-related expenses like tuition, books and rent.

The rising cost of education, coupled with the Great Recession, has seen the number of on-campus food banks skyrocket in recent years. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUBFA), between 2008 and 2015 the number of campus food banks providing food to needy college students and staff increased from 4 to 184. That number includes food banks that have opened at eight schools around Arkansas, including food pantries at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Central Arkansas, Arkansas State University, North Arkansas College in Harrison, Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Pulaski Technical College and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Claire Allison is a program coordinator with the University of Arkansas's Center for Community Engagement and helps oversee UA's Jane B. Gearhart Full Circle Pantry. Started in February 2011, the Full Circle Food Pantry was the first of its kind in the state, and the first campus food pantry in the Southeastern Conference. Organizers of Full Circle have since worked with schools around Arkansas to help them set up their own campus food banks.

Allison said the pantry currently serves an average of 350 people per week, with food available to anyone with a university ID card. "As far as poundage per year," Allison said, "it's significant — tens of thousands of pounds per year."

Allison said the study of campus hunger is still an emerging field. Full Circle received a large grant from Tyson Foods in 2014, with part of the money going toward research into the issue of food insecurity among students and staff at UA. The preliminary results of that research will be coming out soon, Allison said.

"The issue of campus hunger is really complex and complicated," Allison said. "It has to do with rising college costs. It also has to do with low-wage earners [on staff] at the university. That's an issue with the legislature — salary caps at the legislation level that keep wages low for some of the workers on campus. ... With students, you know, it's rising college costs, it's less support from home. It's really a variety of issues." Surprisingly, Allison said, research shows that the more hours students work to make ends meet, the more food insecure they tend to be. The effects of hunger on children is shown to have significant effects on their ability to learn at school; "research is showing that at the college level as well," Allison said. "It makes focusing on academics very hard, it makes persisting until graduation very hard. So there are certainly some significant effects."

The food distributed by Full Circle is all donated, with much of it coming from student-led campus food drives. Allison said the demand on the food pantry is cyclical, with most requests coming around the holidays. Just before Thanksgiving, she said, they hit a record 500 food requests in one week.

"We like to see our numbers grow, because that means we're reaching more of our community," she said. "But the ultimate goal is for that program to not be needed anymore. Of course, we're a long way from that, but we're contributing to that mission."

Betsy Hart is the assistant director of UALR's Campus Community Connection Center, and has overseen the establishment of UALR's Trojan Food Pantry. The pantry opened Feb. 1. Hart said the food bank is run by students and follows the model of Full Circle at UA.

"We had suspected there was a need, and that there was food insecurity among students and staff, but we decided to do a survey, a random sampling of folks," she said. "We found that there definitely was a need, so we started the process of opening a pantry."

Since beginning discussions about opening a food pantry at UALR, Hart said, she's heard many stories from staff and faculty about the reality of hunger on campus. "So many [faculty members] will just keep granola bars in their office drawer, because they know they're going to come across students that need something to eat," Hart said. "I actually had a phone call from a faculty member who said that a student told him he couldn't come to class because he was feeling weak because he was so hungry. ... It's a problem, where students are having to choose between paying their tuition or buying food. A lot of our students have families and they're working a lot, but they're still having to make choices on where they spend their money."

The UALR food pantry is open to the entire campus community, including students, faculty and staff, and distributes food every Thursday. Each client receives a three-day supply of food, based on household size, with recipients filling out a form to determine the kinds of food they receive. "Right now it's all nonperishable [food items] because we don't have any kind of refrigeration or freezers," Hart said, "but we're moving toward that in the future." The system is keyed to each client's campus ID number to maintain confidentiality and help break the stigma of seeking assistance.

"That was a big concern of ours from the beginning," Hart said, "that we wanted to make folks feel comfortable when they come to the pantry." Over the past month, she said, the pantry has filled an average of 25 requests per week, with both students and staff members seeking assistance. The numbers are growing, she said, as word gets out about what the pantry offers.

Hart said she thinks hunger has always been a part of college life for some but is only now being forced into the open. "It's always been something that students have just suffered from silently, and they do the best they can. ... I just think we're finally addressing it."

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