CARBONDALE — Consider this Food Insecurity 101. It’s the toughest class on campus. Dropping out isn’t an option. It’s a pass/fail course.
Between managing classes and life, many college students struggle to come up with the funds to pay for nutritious foods throughout the school year. SIU officials have set out to change that.
The Saluki Food Pantry opened for the first time in August.
The number of students visiting the pantry in the first two months of the semester has proven to SIU officials that their hunch was right: the need for food assistance is abundant. Even they were a little surprised at just how sought-after the service has been.
“When we were planning for the food pantry as a committee, it was difficult to know exactly how many students we would be serving and how that would change over time,” said Geory Kurtzhals, SIU’s sustainability coordinator. “So we thought we would start out with just an estimate of 100 students per month. And we have far surpassed that.”
Kurtzhals said that about 300 students have visited the food pantry since the fall 2016 semester began, a number that may grow as more students learn about the option.
Though helping to feed hungry students for weeks now, SIU officials on Friday officially celebrated the food pantry’s grand opening with a ribbon cutting and tour as part of Homecoming week celebrations.
“It’s one that pulls on your heartstrings,” Chancellor Brad Colwell said. “Food insecurity, it’s a sad concept. It breaks your heart.”
Any student is allowed to visit the food pantry by showing a student ID. Visits are limited to once a month and the amount they can take depends on the number of people in their families. Toiletry items also are available and occasionally other home needs, such as bedding, but that can depend on the flow of donations.
Food insecurity among college students is a problem that has been in the national spotlight in recent years as more focus has been placed on the rising cost of tuition and associated living expenses, and how pinched many students are financially, particularly those paying their own way without the help of parents or others.
In response, many college and universities are opening food banks and coming up with other creative solutions to help students with accessing nutritious food during their years of study. At Friday’s event, several SIU officials said that the food insecurity rate on the Carbondale campus may be as high as 35 percent.
That figure comes from a research study conducted by Loran Luehr Morris in 2013 while she was earning her master’s degree in nutrition at SIU, according to a news release from the university. Morris reportedly polled students from SIU, Eastern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University and Western Illinois University to determine how many students reported that they were food insecure.
Of the 1,900 responses she received across those campuses, 35 percent reported they were “food insecure,” the news release states. The Journal of Nutrition and Education Behavior is in the process of publishing a research article penned by Morris and other contributing authors titled “The Prevalence of Food Security and Insecurity Among Illinois University Students,” according to SIU. The co-authors of the research report are Sylvia Smith and Jeremy Davis, associate professors of animal science, food and nutrition, and Dawn Bloyd Null, wellness coordinator for Student Health Services.
Even before she conducted the study, Morris knew intuitively that campus hunger was a problem, which led her to secure a Leadership Grant through the United Methodist Church of Carbondale. She partnered with SIU’s Wesley Council, a registered student organization and campus ministry, to establish the Wesley Foundation Food Pantry in 2012.
Morris, who presently works as a dietitian at the Marion VA Medical Center, said she has “always had a passion for nutrition and a heart for service.”
“Combining the two into a mission that helps those in need has always been my goal,” Morris told the newspaper on Friday. “I could have never imaged that a small idea at a campus ministry that was only designed to help a handful of individuals would bloom into a research study shedding light on the growing population of food insecure students.”
Morris said she feels “honored that God placed this seed in my heart” and that it has “blossomed into a campus-wide effort to alleviate a hardship within the SIU community.”
The food pantry is not intended to provide an entire month’s worth of food for students, but rather to help supplement their grocery budgets so that it can stretch a bit further, Kurtzhals said. The food pantry does not have refrigeration at this time, though that is a goal for the future.
The Saluki Food Pantry is sustained by donations and volunteers. A graduate student studying social work manages the food pantry and other students, such as Mary McGee, a sophomore from Naperville, give their time to keep it operational.
“I just thought it was a great cause,” said McGee, who is studying English and psychology. “I know a lot of friends and other people who are graduate students on campus that really need the food and can barely pay their rent. It’s something that allows them to get some food for the month and not have to put a ton of money into nourishment if they don’t have it.”
Several donations have already come in to support the food pantry, and Colwell said that he hopes others considering providing money or goods for this worthwhile cause. The chancellor gave a special shout-out to Tim Parks, a 1976 graduate of SIU with a degree in journalism, who gave $10,000 to the food pantry. Parks, of Marion, said that after hearing about the university’s efforts to help hungry students, he knew he found a cause he wanted to support.
“A hungry student is not going to stay a student very long,” he said.
Harry Crisp II, CEO of Pepsi MidAmerica, also was in attendance at the event and given special recognition by Colwell for his commitment to SIU programs and services, including the food pantry. Crisp was selected to serve as the grand marshal of this year’s Homecoming parade.
He told the newspaper that his company is “very interested in how we can be involved in these food pantries.”
Learn more about the food pantry and its donation needs at studentcenter.siu.edu/foodpantry.
Monetary donations can be made online at salukifunder.siu.edu.