College students turn to food pantries

Patricia Montemurri

Student-run food bank sees significant increases.

DETROIT — Michigan State University student Nichole Wickens never imagined standing in line to get staples from a food pantry.

But that’s what the 21-year-old is doing this night at MSU’s Olin Health Center, where the student-run food bank has seen a 25 percent jump in need from the 2007-08 school year.

In three bags, Wickens carries away boxes of instant mashed potatoes and dried pasta, a loaf of bakery bread, applesauce and a box of shredded wheat cereal. At retail, it’s only worth about $20 — but it makes a big difference to Wickens.

“My student account was in stocks, and stocks were hit hard,” Wickens said. “And I’m the oldest of five.” She has a part-time job on campus as a night receptionist, and gets some financial aid for tuition. “But I’m paying for a car, phone, computer, rent and everything else,” she said, “so coming here really helps. It’s a resource to students.”

College campuses aren’t places where you expect to find a food bank. But students are turning to college-sponsored food banks for help because of ever-increasing tuition costs, the loss of financial aid programs like state scholarships and financial support from home being cut-off or diminished because parents have lost jobs.

“This perception that students, because they’re going to college, have money isn’t accurate and never was,” said Dennis Martell, the MSU health education services coordinator and the food bank’s faculty adviser.


Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., opened a food pantry last April, following a suggestion from student Susana Villagomez-Barajas.

“One of the girls I worked with … told me she never had food — that it was either eat or pay bills,” said Villagomez-Barajas, 20, of Grand Rapids, Mich., who is majoring in clinical lab science. “I heard my friends talking about the same thing and students in my classes, so I came up with that idea.”

Villagomez-Barajas talked to the director of GVSU’s Women’s Center, who put together a task force of school counselors and financial aid officials, who confirmed that a food pantry would be beneficial to students.

The GVSU food pantry has helped more than 200 students since it opened, said Rachael DeWitt, who runs the food bank while pursuing a master’s degree in social work and public administration.

“Students feel the brunt of tough economic times,” said DeWitt. “Their parents were able to support them before, but now their parents have lost their jobs.”

The GVSU pantry is supported by cash donations and food that’s donated. DeWitt posts items she needs on an electronic bulletin board. “If I say we’re in need of toiletries and peanut butter, people respond to that,” she said.


While other large Michigan schools don’t operate food banks, many are reporting a surge in students asking for more financial aid.

The University of Michigan has experienced an increase in students showing demonstrated financial need, said school spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham. “We occasionally see a student who is in need of emergency funding. In those cases, we provide an emergency grant to cover immediate needs like food, money to move into an apartment, purchase medication, etc.,” Cunningham said.

“If the student comes forward, we can help them. We always reserve funds for emergencies, and we can disburse emergency funds as quickly as the same day the student asks for help,” Cunningham said. “Students can apply online and receive up to $500 the next morning.”

In Marquette, Mich., Salvation Army director of operations Walter Sleeter said about 100 students a month from Northern Michigan University pick up donated boxes of food, and four or five come to a weekday free lunch program. On Saturday, its Salvation Army Thrift Store offers a 20 percent discount to college students.

Diane Anderson, Western Michigan University’s vice president for student affairs, said WMU explored the notion of opening a food bank, but decided that it duplicated resources that already exist in the Kalamazoo area. The school offers short-term emergency loans to help with living expenses, she said.

At Wayne State University of Detroit, there are no food banks specifically for students. But there are safety nets and food programs throughout the city, offered by nonprofits and church groups, said Kami Pothukuchi, a Wayne State associate professor of urban planning.


Earlier this month, 256 people lined up at MSU’s Olin Health Center, where the food bank operates biweekly, to haul away bags filled with peanut butter, canned tomatoes and corn. Michigan State University students have run a program for needy students, fueled by cash and food donations, since 1993.

On this pick up day at MSU, about 30 student volunteers packaged food, stocked shelves and served customers, who range from undergrads to students pursuing graduate degrees while raising families. Many of those in line were international students.

Kateryna Ananyeva, 28, from Kiev, Ukraine, is a doctoral student in crop and soil sciences. She picked up a box of Cocoa Pebbles cereal, a favorite of her 1-year-old son, Mark. Her husband, Dmytro, also is a graduate student.

“If you’re totally alone, or if you have a child or dependents, it’s really tight,” Ananyeva said.

Lauren Jones, 21, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, is a senior studying communications and hospitality. She has a part-time job on campus and said the food bank “helps you get from one paycheck to the next.” Her father, who works in a business clearing land for construction, has seen his hours cut, and “you don’t want to ask them for money.”

Director Kristin Moretto said the MSU food bank’s budget is about $40,000. The food bank purchases items in bulk from the Mid-Michigan Food Bank, which is operated by the American Red Cross. Retailers sometimes donate perishable items, such as milk or baked goods.

“This is a grass-roots student-run organization,” Moretto said. “The food isn’t being taken away from anyone else who needs it.” Students need only prove that they’re enrolled at MSU and haven’t purchased a university food plan.


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