As higher education officials nationwide come to terms with the number of students who wonder where and when their next meal will come, Baylor University has joined the growing list of schools offering a free food pantry.
Known as The Store, the space sits in the basement of the Sid Richardson Building in the Paul L. Foster Success Center. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Store, which opened Dec. 1, is a response to Baylor research that reveals the severity of food insecurity on campuses, even a private, affluent one like Baylor’s.
According to survey answers returned by almost 300 students who were international, first-generation, fifth-year, transfer or Pell Grant-eligible, 63 percent were food insecure, said Cara Cliburn Allen, a Baylor doctoral candidate. People who are food insecure either cannot access nutritious food or eat one to two meals per day or less.
Follow-up interviews with survey participants shed brighter light on the problem.
“We heard stories about students passing out in class because they hadn’t eaten that day,” said Nathan Alleman, an associate professor of higher education studies.
For students whose tuition is covered by scholarships or public aid, other college-related costs such as rent take precedence over food budgets, Alleman said. The unreliability of government-mandated college expense calculators also contribute to unstable food budgets.
“We had one student who worked 40 hours per weekend, so you have almost no social life because you’re either working or you’re in class,” Alleman said. “So the kind of experience they’re getting from college is so very different than what we think of as the typical undergraduate experience, even though that, it’s in many ways the reason why they came. They want that typical undergraduate experience, but food is kind of the price they pay for trying to make it all work.”
Those are the students welcome at The Store, where they can remain anonymous. Users fill out a form with their student ID numbers and feedback on how to improve the space.
More than 60 students have used The Store, said Michelle Cohenour, director of student success initiatives. Most students came during their days of taking final exams last month. Spring semester classes start Monday.
Students can take everything from microwaveable meals to canned food, granola bars and pasta. Peanut butter and jelly with a brand of bread that remains fresh for months is another popular item.
Toiletries and school supplies are also available.
A fall semester survey found that about 230 new students do not eat three meals per day. Armed with that knowledge and more input from Alleman and Cliburn Allen, Cohenour emailed friends and colleagues about donating to a Baylor food pantry.
“It was a wonderful response,” Cohenour said. “It took a lot of faith for us to think, ‘Let’s jump in and do this.’ But people definitely responded.”
The pantry is stocked mostly with food delivered to the Success Center, she said. People can also give money for The Store through Baylor’s website. Cohenour is studying whether departments across the university can sponsor the pantry each month. The researchers said top administrators embraced the initiative, which made it possible.
Cohenour also consulted with McLennan Community College’s food pantry during the planning process. Research shows community colleges have become leaders in providing resources for food-insecure students because of their high populations of nontraditional students.
Even the name, “The Store,” was modeled after George Washington University and chosen to destigmatize the act of using the food pantry. Research on campus found that some students would be too embarrassed to use a food pantry if they needed food. Other food insecure participants indicated they would not use a food pantry because they believed others needed it more, Alleman said.
The students spoke about “what it’s like to be on a relatively affluent campus and a selective institution and be struggling with hunger,” he said.
“It was a complex picture,” he said. “They loved Baylor, and yet they said, ‘I don’t understand why my experience has to be so different compared to what other students are.’ ”
And though all first-year freshmen are required to have meal plans, which Cliburn Allen said decrease the rate of food insecurity, gaps remain on the weekends, often because of a lack of transportation.
The root cause is the steady, nationwide rise of college tuition and fees, Alleman said. Food pantries help with an immediate problem, but schools’ use of financial aid can become tied to students’ budget struggles.
As of last month, the College and University Food Bank Alliance had 573 members, including Baylor.
“The Band-Aid is, how do we provide more food?” Alleman said. “And part of the response is food pantries, which have been a national phenomenon and have grown like crazy the last few years. They’re a wonderful thing, but it’s not the solution. The solution is (realizing) college is really expensive, and if we’re going to make it available to everyone, we need to make it affordable to everyone.”