By 4:45 p.m. on Oct. 6, the University of Oregon’s Student Food Pantry had been open for 45 minutes. But a line still snaked around the repurposed single-car garage. It stretched down the driveway and onto the sidewalk. And Eric* was in the thick of it, standing without a hooded jacket in the rain.
The fifth-year geology major is no stranger to the pantry line. On that day, he talked with another student to pass the time, sharing tips he’s gleaned from years of strict-budget living:
Be courageous enough to split rent with six strangers from Craigslist. Pack your lunch so you don’t have to eat at the expensive campus joints. Shop at WinCo — even if it means a 20-minute drive — and stock up on nonperishables so nothing gets wasted. And, as for the student food pantry: “Get here early — that’s the key,” he says. “The good stuff always goes first.”
With around 90 students visiting each week, the pantry is operating at its capacity. But as potential tuition increases loom, greater numbers of students may begin feeling financial strain and facing food insecurity — and viable solutions could take years.
More than just numbers
This May, the College and University Food Bank Alliance surveyed nearly 4,000 students from 26 American universities. The group found that 48 percent of respondents had experienced food insecurity within the last 30 days, meaning they lacked “reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food,” because of time, transportation or financial obstacles. About 22 percent met the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of hungry: They faced physiological strain due to inadequate food intake.
The survey’s creators say it is the largest and most college-specific survey to date. According to UO Health Promotion Director Paula Staight, student food insecurity has only recently made agendas at national college health conferences.
No conclusive, UO-specific survey on food insecurity has recently been conducted. However, Reverend Doug Hale, director of UO’s Student Food Pantry and UO religious director, has surveyed first-time pantry visitors for the last two years. He said that over 800 distinct students have visited, and their circumstances represent the range that the term ‘food insecurity’ encompasses.
Some, like Sarah*, only come once or twice, when in a pinch.
“My husband and I are just going through a tough time right now,” said Sarah, who is pursuing a master’s degree. “He’s working, but I haven’t been able to find anything.”
Sarah tracks everything she spends on a spreadsheet. It wasn’t feasible for her to spend her $300 for food this month, given that she has pressing expenses like rent and monthly medical treatments for an autoimmune disease.
Others, like Jessie,* come because they want to nutritiously supplement their UO residence hall meal plans. When he ran low on meal points his freshman year, Jessie realized that the healthy food on-campus, “is definitely more expensive.”
“I just wanted a home-cooked meal,” he said. “Coming [to the pantry] allows me to have a sustainable meal for free.”
Because there is a limit on how much students can take, the pantry acts like more of a cushion than a source for three square meals a day.
“At the end of the day, if this wasn’t here, I could still eat,” Eric said. “But I’m on a strict budget.”
Ideas for a fix
Over 360 colleges and universities have started food pantries or food banks through the College and University Food Bank Alliance. This July, the University of California system announced that it will commit $3.3 million to increasing food access for its students. And 20 universities have joined the ‘swipe out hunger’ program, which allows students to donate unused meal points to other students.
At UO, the first step came when the pantry began in fall 2011.
A student connected with the Episcopal Campus Ministry expressed concern that a fellow student was not able to afford regular meals, Hale said. It started a conversation between the ministry, administrators, campus dietitians and a group of students.
The group wanted to start a food pantry on campus, but could not find adequate space and faced obstacles to obtaining donated food.
The ECM building offered up a single-car garage connected to their property located at 1329 E. 19th Ave. UO provided a little administrative support through the Health Center, but then backed off, Hale said.
In winter 2013, the pantry partnered with Food for Lane County, which is still its primary food provider. Food for Lane County helped the pantry grow from serving 90 people per month to today’s 360.
Among the pantry’s inefficiencies, Hale lists space — students have to wait out in the rain — and the limited hours: Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.
If the pantry did have the time and space to begin offering more food, it would need to satisfy USDA pantry requirements and serve more than just students, Hale said.
Opening the pantry to the greater community might turn off some students. Eric said he’d “feel bad taking food from a city food bank” because it would feel like taking from Eugene’s homeless.
With the pantry’s growth at an impasse, Hale said the UO community needs “to be working on some other ideas to spread the solution around.”
Solutions in the works
The Student Food Security Working Group is exploring solutions. It formed in October 2015, after a visiting lecturer from Oregon State University spoke about national student food insecurity and OSU’s implementation of an emergency relief center.
The group’s 33 members include representatives of academic programs, community groups and student organizations like ASUO and the Radical Organizing and Activism Resource. The working group has met three times, and they’ve discussed the need for a collaborative, multifaceted approach to fighting food insecurity.
According to member and undergraduate student Kiara Kashuba, the group hopes to start a bigger, more accessible food pantry on-campus. Per UO President Michael Schill’s request, Vice Provost Lisa Freinkel and Associate Vice President Kathie Stanley met with members of Kashuba’s sub-committee.
“It takes a while to get stuff moving, but they support it,” Kashuba said.
ASUO Local Affairs Commissioner Amy Schenk worked with the student group ROAR on an early attempt to set up a food pantry in the EMU last winter. The group couldn’t find a space larger than the current pantry. She said ASUO plans to re-commit support to an EMU pantry, and aims to have one in place by the end of this year.
“We want a centralized, safe, accessible space,” she said. She is in conversations with OSU and Western Oregon University — both of which have successful on-campus pantries.
The starting point
In the meantime, Staight and her colleagues at the UO Health Center hope to help educate students on nutrition through the Duck Nest wellness center. Student volunteers will teach programs on healthy eating on a budget, and applying for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Staight helped implement the most recent UO health policy: the smoke-free campus initiative. It took eight years, she said. It’s likely that getting university resources to fight student food insecurity would take just as long, but with the interest from the working group and ASUO, she “feels like it’s starting.”
She explained that the process would require sufficient, UO-specific data to illustrate that food insecurity is a problem on this campus. With that in hand, groups are more likely to gain administrative approval.
“There’s kind of a tipping point that happens,” Staight said of administrative support for health policies. The smoke-free policy was deemed unnecessary at first, but then more and more colleges started going smoke-free. The administrative leadership at UO didn’t want to fall behind peer-institutions by default, Staight said.
For now, students like Eric and Sarah and Jessie will wait in the pantry line, fighting to not fall behind on meals, not to mention the education and careers they came to UO to pursue.
*Names have been changed at students’ requests.