As an undergraduate, Melodie Reece often found herself short on food. When she wasn’t working to complete her global studies degree, she was clocking 19.5 hours every week as a student employee. She didn’t qualify for public aid because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program requires its recipients to work more than 20 hours a week. Instead, she navigated the University District Food Bank on Roosevelt.
“Food banks can be pretty intimidating sometimes,” she says. “There are a lot of intergenerational people. You don’t know what kind of information they’re going to ask of you. It can be pretty invasive.”
Sometimes she had to wait at night for the food bank to open. “I remember having to arrange my schedule around the food bank’s distribution hours,” Reece says.
Since graduating in 2013, she has returned to the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance for a master’s in public administration. This time at the UW, she’s here to do more than complete her degree. Because she knows her experience as a student sometimes too broke to buy food is far from unique, she works at an on-campus food pantry designed exclusively for students.
Nationwide, 52 percent of college students who don’t reside on campus or with family live in poverty, according to a 2016 study by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. And this year, a survey published by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36 percent of college students say they are food insecure.
Just in its first quarter, the pantry served more than 260 people and distributed more than 2,000 pounds of food.
With details like this in mind, the Division of Student Life launched UW Campus Food Pantry two years ago. Also, a task force was started to investigate how many students at UW were facing food insecurity. While the findings are yet to come, the need is clear. Just in its first quarter, the pantry served more than 260 people and distributed more than 2,000 pounds of food. And the numbers have risen every quarter since then. To date, the pantry has hosted over 1,500 visits to its locations at the Husky Union Building (HUB) and the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center (ECC).
The pantry relies on donations from food drives by student clubs and academic departments. These are supplemented by a regional food bank distributor that sells bulk food to the pantry at discounted rates. Additionally, “every once in a while the (UW) farm will have extra produce that they have harvested and they will graciously donate to the pantry,” Reece says. The farm grows vegetables like radish, spinach, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes and carrots. These donations are always the first to go, but students can also take home a box of produce for $5 each week, which, without pantry support, would normally cost $30 per week.
This summer, the basement of the Kelly ECC housed shelves full of non-perishable foods. Red and green cans of Campbell’s soup, beans, condensed milk and vegetables were stacked from top to bottom. A clear plastic box full of tampons, pads, baby food, shampoo and conditioner sat on the bottom right shelf. Bags of ramen and rice, stacks of cooking products, red and yellow bottles of condiments, and brightly colored bags of Doritos waited to be taken home by anyone with a Husky card.
“Students find themselves hungry or food insecure for a variety of reasons,” Reece says. Many are struggling to pay their rent, buy their books and still have enough leftover to fully feed themselves before their next round of loans and scholarships comes through. International students and graduate students also make up a large portion of pantry users, according to Reece.
“There was a grad student who visited the pantry a couple times,” Reece recalls. The first time, he confided in Reece that he was a really big runner before he started grad school, but didn’t have the money for the calories he needed to keep up with running.
“That is so heartbreaking,” Reece says. “Exercise is self-care. It helps you de-stress. If you can’t do that as a grad student, that’s insane.”
Students can find their way to the pantry through a variety of avenues. Any time a student goes somewhere on campus looking for help or has a student conduct issue or an appointment with Health and Wellness, they are offered resources, including the food pantry. Faculty and staff are not always as willing to use a resource they see as “for students,” but they are welcome, too.
“It’s all on the honor system. ... They can always chat us up when they need more.”
The pantry can also be reached through Facebook and by email or phone. Reece sets up an appointment when someone reaches out or is referred. She meets them at the front desk of the HUB or the Kelly ECC and walks them to where the food is stored and talks them through the process and guidelines, of which there are few. “It’s all on the honor system,” Reece says. The visitor will take what they need, and “they can always chat us up when they need more.”
While many students have visited through appointments, the pantry has hosted pop-up events at both the HUB and the Kelly ECC where, over a three-hour rush, the doors open wide. Visitors grab food before completing a satisfaction survey and swiping their Husky card so their pantry needs can be tracked. One exit survey in April showed that more than half of respondents were food insecure enough to skip or eat an unsatisfying meal at least once a week.
This fall, the pantry is moving to a permanent location on the north side of Poplar Hall, not far from the Kelly ECC and close to the Ave and several bus lines. In the new site, which was donated by Housing and Food Services, the pan-
try can offer regular hours during the week, says Sean Ferris, the Office of Student Life’s lead for the food pantry. “The new site will also allow for community space and workspace where students involved in food insecurity and in food justice will be able to meet,” he says.
“As hosts to the food pantry, the HUB and the Kelly ECC have been great partners up to now,” Ferris says. “But the new space, which should open in November, will definitely provide opportunities to expand the pantry and serve more students.”
To donate, request a bin to host a food drive or drop off food at the Kelly ECC front desk. Request a bin through firstname.lastname@example.org.