Half an hour before Iowa State University’s food pantry was set to open, a small group of students had already gathered outside, ready to grab groceries and other essentials.
PhD student Mobina Amrolahi was working on her laptop in the hallway. She was hoping to get tofu and canned goods from The SHOP to complement the groceries she buys. Frederic Osei, also a PhD student, wanted protein and spaghetti if he could.
SHOP Co-President Sarah Schroeder said the lines are not an uncommon sight and the size of the pantry doesn’t help. On days when students know the pantry is stocked, they will see hundreds come in over a few hours.
“You walk down this really long hallway from the front desk, and there are times when our line is next to the stairs you go down,” Schroeder said. “So we’re seeing lines, especially at certain times of the week, like we have certain busy times where there’s going to be big crowds waiting outside.”
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Like Schroeder, nutrition program leaders at the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa are seeing large numbers of students. As the cost of living and higher education continues to rise, Iowa’s public universities are seeing more and more students looking for programs to help them put food on the table while juggling school, work and other responsibilities.
THE STORE at Iowa State University offers shelf-stable and non-perishable food on campus, as well as hygiene items and other essentials Monday and Wednesday through Friday. At the University of Iowa, the Iowa Food Pantry is open to anyone with a university ID Tuesday through Friday. The University of Northern Iowa’s Panther Pantry provides food, hygiene and cleaning products to students Monday through Thursday.
Each of the university’s food pantries has seen increased use year over year, prompting them to try to increase stocks and limit how much can be taken out if needed.
In August 2022, the Iowa Food Pantry saw 660 visits and distributed 6,539 pounds of food. In August of this year, he saw 990 visits and went through 11,250 pounds of food.
THE SHOP at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa Panther Pantry also saw an increase in students stopping by to pick up items, with The SHOP jumping from 1,020 visits in September 2022 to 1,884 visits in September 2023. and the Panther Pantry had a 17% increase in unique students from this fall to last.
Last school year, University of Northern Iowa Associate Director of Student Involvement and Event Services Connie Hansen said the pantry saw 550 unique students. Use of the pantry has increased steadily since opening in 2019.
In addition to food pantries, universities also offer student access programs to dining halls and emergency funds.
The University of Northern Iowa started a new program this fall called Panthers Against Hunger, which allows students to donate up to $20 of their meal dollars to get a hot meal. Iowa State University’s Give a Swipe program allows students to donate flexible meals or meal dollars to other students in need of food assistance.
The University of Iowa’s Hawkeye Meal Share program creates a pool of unused dining room guest passes that are distributed to applying students. They can receive up to 14 meals under the program.
Each university also has emergency funds that students can apply for to help cover their expenses.
Sometimes these resources are not enough. University of Iowa Basic Needs Coordinator Steph Beecher said students who already use the pantry and food voucher program will come to her looking for more sustainable help, but it just isn’t available.
“We’re trying to fight and find resources, and frankly, there’s times we can’t do anything else,” Beecher said.
Increased need tracking
University of Iowa professor and researcher Kathryn Broughton said data on long-term trends on basic needs insecurity aren’t really available, but what can be tracked is the rising cost of higher education and lagging financial aid.
Less public investment in higher education has caused colleges to steadily raise tuition, and financial aid offerings have failed to close the gap.
Iowa Regents University raised tuition for a third year this spring, with in-state students paying 3.5 percent more and varying increases for out-of-state students. The University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa also increased in-state graduate tuition by 3.5 percent, and Iowa State University increased it by 4 percent.
In the past, students could work their way through college, but that is no longer the case. Students are dealing with higher living and food costs as well as education costs due to inflation and wages not rising to combat it.
“These problems really stem from the high cost of college attendance, limited need-based financial aid that has not kept pace with the rising cost of college attendance and wages that students can earn, and the increased insecurity of low-wage workers in our economy,” Broughton said.
Increased use of food insecurity resources may also be due to greater visibility and availability of programs. The University of Iowa moved its food pantry to a larger, more visible space in the basement of the Iowa Memorial Union this August, and Basic Needs Manager Faith Surface said the number of visitors has jumped from about 100 per week to 100 per day.
“I think the need has always been there,” Surface said. “We’re more accessible now.”
Although universities are expanding their food access program for those in need, Broughton said resources like food pantries and food vouchers don’t really solve the problem of food insecurity.
“I have a colleague who often says we’re not going to be able to get out of this ‘food pantry,'” Broughton said. “Food pantries are essential resources in our communities, but you know, they’re not meant to end hunger.”
Decisions targeting how students pay for college, as well as increased access to public benefits, would have an indirect impact on food insecurity, as well as other areas of basic need insecurity, Broughton said, as they come closer to long-standing, root problems rather than more immediate concerns.
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Having plans to deal with short-term, moderate-term and long-term problems is important, she said, as students struggle with food to eat and places to stay today, but the fact that future students will also experience this must be taken into account. .
Beecher agreed, saying he was advocating systemic change. Recalling Audre Lorde’s work in the 1960s to establish public health care because they couldn’t rely on the government for help, Beecher said the University of Iowa needs to put more money into the pantry and help with care for their students.
Students faced with uncertainty about basic needs, which Broughton worked with in her research, reported problems focusing and feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and a lack of belonging. Their class attendance and coursework suffer as they try to figure out where their next meal will come from.
However, food insecurity programs have been shown to help students feel better and stay in school. A study conducted by Broton on a food voucher program implemented by a community college in Boston found that students who entered college at high risk of food insecurity and were offered dining hall food vouchers had higher percentage of achievement than their peers who did not t receive vouchers. She said similar studies looking at food pantries have produced similar results.
“Investing in basic needs resources is not just the right thing to do to help students, but it can actually improve a college’s bottom line by improving retention rates and academic success outcomes,” Broughton said.
Food Pantry Iowa Basic Needs Manager Yunseo Kee said food pantries have been a lifeline for her in the past when she worked long and odd hours trying to pay for school and her life. The support she received made her want to give it back, and it led her to start volunteering at the Iowa Food Pantry.
“Anyone can come in and need help getting through a difficult time in their life, and then they can just be inspired to help their fellow students and community members in the same way,” Key said.