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Feeding the Mind and Body

Some college students are faced with a difficult decision: FOOD OR TEXTBOOKS.

Colleges and universities are combating food hardship by providing students with pantries to satisfy their cravings and help them succeed in the classroom.

The clock is ticking. Shawn Livermore sits in her final class of the day and has been eagerly waiting for this moment. As the professor releases the students, Livermore’s primary reaction is to satisfy her stomach by stopping at the Knights Helping Knights Pantry located at the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) main campus.

That’s exactly where she goes and has been going every day since her first semester.

Livermore is in her third semester, equivalent to the amount of time she’s been living in a tent, and prior to college, she was in search of food at local churches—a daily meal of bread and peanut butter. It was a dramatic change for her when she went to the UCF pantry for the first time, which resembles a grocery store providing students with nonperishable food items as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods and more—all at no cost to the student.

“We have so many homeless college students, and even if they’re not homeless, they spent all of their money on books and on their [tuition] and they struggle and it’s really hard,” Livermore explains.

Between the cost of tuition, food, textbooks, car upkeep and other necessary purchases, some students are struggling to get by even in the first week of school. It isn’t uncommon for college students to be short on change or living paycheck to paycheck.

For some students, the last thing on their mind is putting money toward a meal that they can use for a more important matter. However, administrators and staff at colleges and universities in the area are learning of this struggle students are facing and eliminating the need to make a choice.

The Knights Helping Knights pantry at UCF was started by the LEAD Scholars Academy, a two-year academic development program for students, in 2009. What was once a small space has expanded throughout the years to be a prosperous program.

The Knights pantry on the main campus (having four additional yet smaller, regional locations) not only offers food, but also items such as silverware, textbooks, clothing and even a professional-wear program so students can sign out a suit or blazer for job interviews. Although the pantry offers a vast amount of utilities for students, it isn’t the only college campus that offers these items. Other institutions such as Valencia College, Florida State University (FSU) and the University of Florida (UF) are also supporting the movement to end food insecurity among students.

To use the pantry, students typically walk in, show their student ID and can grab either a pre-made bag or select any item they choose (some pantries have item count restrictions). Although details vary at each college, no questions are asked and students go on their way.

All pantries stock the shelves through monetary or food donations from volunteers. Some of the bigger universities, such as UF and UCF, have affiliations with food banks, but remain grateful for any volunteer donations.

Creating a Safe Place
Food insecurity can mean something different from student to student, whether it’s one missed meal or barely scraping together one meal a day.

“It could be a student who only utilizes the pantry one time because financial aid hasn’t hit and they need something to get by, or it could be a student whose parents are doing their best to support them but also have a lot of expenses to pay at home,” Ambre Hobson, assistant director in the care area at the dean of students office at UF, says.

The biggest stigma lies in the thoughts of the students’ peers and family members. Colleen Eagan, coordinator of student development at Valencia College, says it’s difficult for students to admit to staff members and peers their financial strain and their limitations on necessities. The college, which has Pooky’s Pantry on all six campus locations, is trying to rid the stigmas through raising awareness of food hardship and providing a place where students don’t feel judged.

To combat these perceptions, UCF’s Knights pantry upholds a friendly environment and doesn’t place logos on any of their food distribution bags. “If you walk into our facility, there are a lot of decorations and it’s meant to feel like you’re shopping at a grocery store like you get to pick and choose what food you want as opposed to having the bag predesigned for you,” says Jeannie Kiriwas, associate director of the Student Union at UCF.

FSU’s Food for Thought pantry, which opened in 2006, works hard at terminating the bad rap food pantries get by using bags typically associated with something else, such as an orientation bag, so it isn’t obvious what the student is carrying, says Vicki Dobiyanski, dean of students.

“We do all what we possibly can to lessen that stigma so our pantry has some chalkboards and signage inside the pantry that are really colorful and bright and have some pictures,” Hobson says. “Our student staff are trained in customer service so that whenever people enter the pantry, they feel welcomed.”

A Lasting Imprint
UF’s Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Pantry as part of the Field and Fork campus food program opened its doors a little over three years ago and has had over 27,000 visits since then. The university gets its departments involved through food drives and uses the Field and Fork farm and garden to supply the pantry with fresh organic produce during growing season. UF doesn’t stop at its students; the university invites school staff who are also struggling with food insecurity to use the pantry.

“The reason why this food is on our campus is so that [students] can get a great education and perform to their maximum potential in their classes,” Hobson says. “Studying for a biology exam on an empty stomach is really hard, and so we hope to remove that obstacle of food insecurity as much as possible from the lives of [the] students so they can focus on doing what they’re here to do.”

Campus food pantries serve as a way for not only students to get involved but the community surrounding it. A connection between local food banks and campus food pantries creates the support students need. “I know a lot of the larger universities work with food banks,” Eagan says. “They’re with certain suppliers to bring in food items, but you’re building that relationship between the campus and between the community around them.”

The Knights pantry at UCF was able to create its own scholarships for students impacted by Hurricane Irma. “They need this money to just rebuild their lives, rebuilding so much stuff that they lost during the hurricane,” says Eli Valentin, assistant manager at the pantry. “I think it’s really important that there’s something on campus that is stable for them because right now, even still to this day, they’re kind of still in a state of limbo.”

Whether pantries award scholarships, supply food or act as an amenity to fall back on, they are shaping students’ lives in college with a greater potential to succeed and graduate.

“We can’t focus on student success if a student is hungry, they can’t learn, they can’t yearn, they can’t succeed in the classroom if they’re worried about hunger and where their next meal is coming from,” Dobiyanski says. “So anything we can do to make sure that the student is nourished and has access to meals and some of the basics taken care of, we automatically help them in their endeavor for student success.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s October 2018 issue.