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Survey: Over 60% of Catholic College Food Pantries See Demand Rise

On-campus food pantries exist on nearly two-thirds of Catholic college and university campuses, according to a recently conducted survey of ACCU members. And at more than 60% of those pantries, demand is on the rise, marking hunger as a persistent issue among students (Figure 1).

Many pantries have opened in just the last two academic years, though some have been operating for nearly two decades (Figure 2). Even among the Catholic colleges that don’t currently host pantries, many indicated that their leadership is actively exploring the need to establish such a resource.

Roughly one-quarter of all ACCU member colleges responded to the informal survey conducted by the association in November 2019. Nearly all respondents indicated that their campus is in some way working to alleviate hunger, both on campus and in the local community (Figure 3).

Reflecting their commitment to human dignity, a number of the colleges indicated that they are careful to serve students inconspicuously. “Food service offers free swipes” to students with demonstrated need, noted Cindy Workman, director of public relations at Creighton University. In addition, “those who utilize the food pantry are given free swipes to allow them to eat with their friends.” 

At Mount Mary University, there is no single, central food pantry. Rather, there are several discreet areas that students are aware of where they can secure healthy food and snack items.

In addition to food pantries and food/monetary drives, the survey uncovered the following common strategies among Catholic colleges:

  • Operating food recovery programs, usually in partnership with campus catering and food services, that allow leftover food to be redistributed. These programs typically serve both students and those in the broader community who are facing hunger issues.
  • Hosting a “hunger awareness” month during the academic year, during which they hold food drives and educational or social justice awareness events.
  • Connecting students in need to social service agencies and resources like SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
  • Allowing students to spend down their meal plan dollars by donating non-perishable items to the food pantry.

Efforts to work together with area service agencies and other local entities were cited by several colleges that responded to the survey, as well. At Gwynedd Mercy University, “Key staff and administrators have joined in partnership with a local community college and food bank to explore how they might leverage their shared footprint to provide additional resources to support the basic needs of students who are struggling,” said Betsy Stone Plummer, assistant director of campus ministry for the university .


Nourishing the Whole Student

Because hunger is often just one symptom of wider challenges that a student is facing, college administrators say they must look more broadly at what a student might be needing. Alvernia University, for instance, maintains a program “that provides clothing, books, supplies, and other services for students who have a need,” said Julianne Wallace, Alvernia’s vice president for mission and ministry.

“We offer a student emergency fund where students who have recently encountered an unforeseen issue can apply for funding up to $500,” explained Amanda Ingersoll Villanueva, assistant dean of students at the University of St. Thomas in Texas. But the institution responds with more than just financial help. “If a student applies, it triggers an automatic in-person meeting with the Dean of Students office to discuss the situation, because financial insecurity can impact other areas of their life, like their school work or relationships with others. … About six weeks after receiving the funding, the Dean of Students office follows up with the student to see how their financial situation has improved, maintained, or worsened, and uses this as an opportunity to discuss other strategies and initiatives as necessary.”

Likewise, St. Norbert College takes steps to address student needs holistically. The office of Health and Wellness Services serves as the point of referral, reported Julie Massey, interim vice president for mission and student affairs. “Staff there can work one-on-one to determine more sustainable sources of support,” such as state aid for students who are independent from their family. “Navigating these systems is complex, and so Health and Wellness Services plays a case management role to support the students.”

Read more about how Catholic colleges and universities are addressing food insecurity in the winter 2019 edition of Update, the newsletter of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

—Posted December 16, 2019