Campus food banks expand to feed hungry students


LANSING — Food banks are a growing sight on Michigan campuses as many students struggle with higher tuition, costly rent — and sometimes, hunger.

“I think institutions are beginning to realize there has been a food-insecure population on campuses all along, and we need to serve it,” said Nathaniel Smith-Tyge, director of the Michigan State University Food Bank.

Prior to the Great Recession, Michigan colleges and universities had only four on-campus food pantries, according to the MSU Food Bank. Today, 13 institutions have programs supported by the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

Eastern Michigan University is the latest school to follow this trend, opening a campus food pantry this fall. Others include the University of Michigan and Saginaw Valley State, Western Michigan, Finlandia, Grand Valley State and Michigan State universities. Among the others are Kirkland and Bay de Noc community colleges, and Lake Michigan College.

Most campus-based food banks in the state rely on donations from students, alumni and the surrounding community.

Karen Lamons, the WMU residential life supervisor who worked to open the university’s food pantry last fall, said the support the program has received over the last year has been staggering.

“It’s beyond our expectation — not just that people are coming, but that people want to support it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s our administration, our faculty, our staff, our student organizations — they all want to support it.”

She said a lot of donations come from food drives held by local businesses and organizations, as well as students themselves, who work as volunteers and drop off donations at the campus’ 30 collection sites.

During its first year, there were more than 400 visits to WMU’s pantry. Lamons said the program doesn’t require individuals to prove their need. To visit the pantry, they just have to be enrolled WMU students.

Nationally, one in 10 adults in need of emergency food assistance is a student, according to Feeding America, a Chicago-based national network of food banks with a significant presence in West Michigan. It is hard to calculate how those numbers stack up for Michigan — the Department of Health and Human Services does not compile student-specific data.

Smith-Tyge said Michigan State’s program helps approximately 4,000 students and their families each year.

“At an institution like MSU with an enrollment of 50,000, when we’re talking about even a small percentage, we’re still talking about a good number of people,” he said. “It goes beyond that general perception of students having to buy ramen and those kinds of things. These really are people who do not know where their next meal is going to come from.”

Food insecurity — meaning a lack of access to adequate food due to a shortage of money or other resources — affects thousands of college students nationally, and can come with anxiety about running out of food, inability to afford a balanced diet, skipping meals and eating inadequately sized meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And after broad cuts were made in 2011 that severely restricted student access to state food assistance, it’s a struggle some Michigan students face almost daily.

The cut, which was designed to reduce costs and crack down on welfare fraud, saves the state about $75 million annually. It did away with a Michigan rule that let nearly all students qualify for assistance simply based on student status.

“It’s actually one of the questions we ask on our intake form, and about 20 percent of students we see in our pantry did have a Bridge Card and lost it (because of the cuts),” Lamons said. “I think the cuts the state has brought in have made students look for other resources.”

The Food Assistance Program offers temporary aid through the Michigan Bridge Card, which is a debit card version of food stamps.

Students can still qualify for food aid if they meet certain criteria, including single parents with a dependent or working more than 20 hours per week. However, the process and qualifications are more difficult to meet, said Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for Michigan League for Public Policy.

“It’s much stricter now,” he said. “People who have families and are actually in need can still get the food assistance, but if they’re, for example, living on campus and younger, chances are they will not. They have to jump through more hoops.”

The change has exacerbated problems like rising tuition, cuts to state financial aid for students, high rent near campuses and the skyrocketing prices of textbooks, leaving students struggling to fill their cupboards, Ruark said.

“College is expensive, and sometimes it’s a choice between books or rent or food,” Lamons said.

The rising number of campus-based food banks has helped mitigate the problem, Smith-Tyge said.

“They help to relieve that stressor in their lives so they can focus on their academic, professional and family lives, and be successful there,” he said. “It not only addresses a moral component of making sure that no one’s hungry, but it also affects the institutions overall when students don’t have that stress in their lives and have their basic needs met, so they can be successful.”

The MSU Food Bank, the first campus-based program in the country when it opened in 1993, offers food, toiletries and other items.

The MSU program also co-founded the national College and University Food Bank Alliance to help other universities develop and maintain similar programs.

“Since our founding, other campuses have been interested in setting up food bank programs on their campuses,” Smith-Tyge said.

He said part of the program’s mission as a food assistance pioneer is to help other schools and address student food insecurity in Michigan and throughout the country.

“I think that we’ve been a good example, and we’ve been able to help and provide tools and resources and make connections for other campuses,” he said.

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