Higher Education

Campus pantries fighting food insecurity among students

Dinner for Pierpont Community and Technical College students at LIFE UMC in Fairmont, West Virginia. Courtesy of LIFE UMC.
Dinner for Pierpont Community and Technical College students at LIFE UMC in Fairmont, West Virginia. Courtesy of LIFE UMC.

While United Methodist churches have long been involved with campus ministries, some are now expanding their role to participate in and support food pantries. Though hunger is a challenge faced by 40 million Americans who do not know where their next meal may come from, recent studies have shown that food insecurity among American college students in particular has become a national crisis.

According to the 2019 College and University Basic Needs Insecurity report by the Hope Center, 45% of students from over 100 different colleges and universities experience food insecurity, a state of limited or uncertain access to food. Rising tuition and college costs have forced some students to choose between buying books and buying food. Some studies have even found a correlation between food insecurity and GPA.

While there are some government programs available to combat food insecurity, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), only 18% of college students are eligible for this aid and only 3% receive benefits. To be eligible, a student must work at least 20 hours a week or receive a federal work study grant, making it very difficult for them to pursue their education. Fortunately, there are other ways to help.

Local churches are among those beginning to offer new services and resources for students in need. Some United Methodist congregations are creating food pantries for students requiring assistance, often in partnership with local universities and their communities.

In Normal, Illinois, First United Methodist Church near Illinois State University hosts “Distribution Days” every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. for any college student with a valid I.D. from Illinois State, Illinois Wesleyan or Heartland Community College. The pantry is a collaboration between the church, the university students and health and wellness officials and the surrounding community members. The Midwest Food Bank and the Eastern Illinois Food Bank provides the food that is distributed.

“There’s more than just food being given out,” says the Rev. Kathy King-Nobles, pastor. She says the church’s response to food insecurity among students began with the “awareness of the need” and a desire to “create a space.” The church then strategized with an advisory board made up of students and community members to develop a vision for the food pantry.  

“We have created a space that is welcoming and respectful,” she says. Among the pantry’s most frequent guests are international students who may not have means of transportation and do have restrictions on employment and income. King-Nobles calls the pantry an “important ministry” that brings together “several entities that have similar values but may approach it from different perspectives and different angles.”

LIFE United Methodist Church near Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont, West Virginia, also runs a food pantry ministry. The pantry is open during the daytime class hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and during night classes.

The Rev. Larry Buckland, pastor, explains that being neighbors helped LIFE UMC assist the campus ministry by bringing lunches to the students, providing transportation to the pantry from their housing and planting the seed for the development of a program that could nourish the students long-term. With the help of the university Provost Michael P. Wade and information specialist Jill Sole, the pantry runs completely on donations from people excited to help their community, including other churches and nonprofits.

LIFE “Church wanted to be present not only in food but in prayer and care for the students,” something Buckland says really sets its mission apart. Creating a “safe space” with “no judgement” is important, but getting to know the students is the next step that creates a truly beneficial relationship and community.

As food insecurity proliferates, so does the consumption of fast food leading to higher obesity rates. The students who come to these pantries often opt for the healthier fruits and vegetables. They also bring their friends along.

Similar to Normal First, LIFE UMC stresses the importance of “helping and serving others, regardless of faith.” To be able to “cast your nets wider and deeper” is to be a good neighbor, Buckland says. With the help of volunteers who have been interviewed and trained, the food pantry is “not just [about] feeding of the stomach but feeding of soul.”

For those thinking of starting a college pantry, both leaders advise that, alongside creating awareness of the problem and effective communication, time is needed to adequately prepare for such an undertaking even though the need may be immediate.

Buckland hopes other churches and leaders will also have the experience of walking out the door of a university food pantry and hearing a student in excitement say, “Is that from the church again?”

Whether it is Thanksgiving dinner, cooking classes, university lunches or food from the pantry, the gratitude students express stays with those serving them. The student has food and is not going hungry.

Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay served as a summer 2019 intern with the communications strategy team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. A senior at Belmont University, she expects to graduate in December 2019 with a degree in English and Art History.