Campus Pantry Fills Growing Need Among TerpsBy Lauren Brown | Illustration by Jason Keisling
Not even a week into the semester, the calls requesting emergency appointments at the Campus Pantry start coming in. Graduate students, commuters, Terps juggling studies and young families. Could they please stop by the food bank to fill a grocery bag?
On the lush University of Maryland campus, so rich in talent among its faculty and students, it’s a disconcerting fact that a portion of this community is hungry.
A small survey conducted on campus in 2015 found that 15 percent of undergraduates were food-insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to safe and healthy foods. Another 16 percent were at risk of becoming food-insecure, according to the survey by Assistant Professor Devon Payne-Sturges in environmental health and Allison Lilly Tjaden M.P.H. ’12, assistant director in Dining Services.
The pair partnered this fall with the University Counseling Center to survey a larger, broader population on campus and determine the full scope of the problem—and what’s driving it.
“There is more struggle going on than many people think,” Payne-Sturges says.
She and several colleagues nationwide recently published a study in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics finding that food insecurity is a “major” public health concern among postsecondary students in the U.S. Their review of dozens of single-campus studies and reports also showed a consistent link between food insecurity and financial independence, poor health and adverse academic outcomes.
The initial campus survey, whose results were published in The American Journal of Health Promotion, bore that out, finding that students who were minorities, receiving multiple forms of financial aid or experiencing housing problems were more likely to be at risk or food-insecure.
And 20 percent of the 4,901 UMD undergraduate and graduate students who responded to the new survey reported being food-insecure, according to results released in March.
One obvious intervention is food banks; the College and University Food Bank Alliance counts 566 members nationwide serving students, with the goal of helping them to stay in school and succeed. Maryland’s Campus Pantry opened in Fall 2014 and served 52 students in its first year; 315 visited there in 2016–17, typically several times.
Clients say they rely on the pantry as they struggle with late-arriving scholarships, or their parents’ joblessness or mortgage problems.
“It’s really meaningful in terms of both material support and spiritual one,” says one graduate student. “It shows the sharing spirit by Terps, of Terps and for Terps.”
Run by Tjaden, other Dining Services staff and a team of interns and volunteers, the pantry has struggled to overcome some unique obstacles: First, it was housed at a concession stand in Cole Field House, meaning patrons had to be handed a bag rather than select foods themselves due to lack of space. Now based in a small conference room in the Health Center’s basement, the pantry allows guests to choose their cans of soup, bags of rice and cereal boxes from the shelves, but they have to squeeze around the conference table and stacks of totes, and the knee-high refrigerator limits dairy options.
Open Fridays from 9 to 5 (plus for emergency appointments), the pantry also shares produce harvested each week from Terp Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md.
A new effort to raise $900,000 will fund moving the pantry just around the corner in the building to a space five times larger, with a kitchen for cooking lessons, meeting rooms for one-on-one consultations with social workers and the potential for an exterior door, so the pantry could be open later than the Health Center’s traditional daytime hours.
“Our mission is to alleviate food insecurity on campus,” Tjaden says. “There are so many interconnected issues, and if we have the opportunity to connect students with other services to address whatever else is going on with them, that’s where we’re focused.”
To support the fundraising effort for an expanded Campus Pantry, visit sagiving.umd.edu.
Editor's note: This story was updated in March to add the results of the Fall 2017 survey.
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