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For students in need, there’s no reason to be embarrassed

January 31, 2018

The River Falls Community Food Pantry offers its services to anyone in need living within the River Falls school district. It is located at 222 N. Main St. in downtown River Falls, and residents are encouraged to walk in whenever it is open. They can then present a photo ID and browse the shelves for what they need as if going through a grocery store.

Students at UW-River Falls, so long as they present their student ID, have full access to these services. Not many do, however, said Executive Director Candice Anderson. Either students don’t realize that they count as residents while attending UWRF, or they don’t want to risk the social stigma attached to the food pantry.

“People get embarrassed,” Anderson said, “and it’s understandable. It’s not needed, but it’s understandable.”

One common mentality among students, said UWRF Counseling and Health Services Director Alice Reilly-Myklebust, is that their own food insecurity is not severe enough to warrant a trip to the food pantry because there’s other people who need the food more. There is also the thought that because students can afford college they should be able to afford food.

Sarah Paepke is a freshman majoring in animal science at UWRF. She lives in the dorms and has a meal plan.

“If I couldn’t afford a meal plan,” she said, “I probably wouldn’t go to college.”

College students, however, are not always able to feed themselves as much as they would like. Studies and surveys across the country are beginning to find a surprising amount of food insecurity on campuses, and people from UWRF Counseling and Health Services are beginning to ask questions about how extensive the problem is and how they might help.

Amber Schoeder is a junior majoring in psychology. She currently lives in an apartment off campus and makes efforts to get healthy food like salad, beans, asparagus, potatoes and chicken. Her diet, she said, is roughly what she wants it to be, though on occasion it can be difficult to buy healthy food.

“The price of food to, like, eat healthy is sometimes an issue because it’s expensive to buy salad stuff every day,” Schoeder said. “It’s really hard to sometimes start with that salad if I can’t afford to get it for that week. But – I try to.”

Schoeder has, in the past, turned to a food pantry for help. She and her mother would go to a pantry in Elk Mound every third Saturday of the month, where they paid 20 dollars and were given access to food that was either close to expiration or expired and frozen. The environment, she said, was very comfortable and helpful, and no one tried to attach a social stigma to the recipients of the food.

“I’m not ashamed to say I would do that,” Schoeder said. “It helps me and my mom get food and we can’t always afford it.”

Food insecurity has not been extensively studied among college students, though Reilly-Myklebust from Counseling and Health Services said that universities are starting to realize that it’s more of a problem than previously thought. The University of Minnesota conducted a College Student Health Survey in 2015 in which they began asking their students about food insecurity. The two questions they asked were:

“Within the past 12 months, I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more.” 17.5 percent of respondents said that this was sometimes or often true. Out of 2,023 respondents, this amounts to 354 students.

“Within the past 12 months, the food I bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have money to get more.” A total of 206 students said that this was sometimes or often true.

Other campuses, Reilly-Myklebust said, have been finding that problems typically arise when students move to off-campus housing where they are no longer required to have a meal plan. Even students in the dorms, however, might be getting less food than they need if cost concerns force them to buy a meal plan that doesn’t meet their needs.

“I think campuses have been surprised at the need,” Reilly-Myklebust said.

As part of the spring National College Health Assessment survey, UWRF will be making an effort to get a better idea of how widespread food insecurity is on campus. The survey will ask two questions on the subject that closely mirror those the University of Minnesota asked.

Beyond the survey, UWRF has been working with the food shelter to figure out a way to help students get enough food.

“There’s been some discussion about having a food shelf on campus,” Reilly-Myklebust said. Creating one from scratch, however, would be a large undertaking. Food shelves involve a lot of legal infrastructure, and staffing would be difficult to maintain over J-term and summer when there aren’t students around.

One potential way to get around this would be to give students ride vouchers to transport them to the food pantry downtown or to establish a satellite outlet of the community pantry on campus. Anderson, from the pantry, said that meeting regulations would be easy if the outlet’s selection were kept small and the food limited to non-perishable items. The pantry is also lucky to be relatively well-stocked, she said, and would likely be able to handle extra demand.

Student organizations could also get involved. Many, like the Honors Program, already conduct food drives. If Health and Counseling Services were to educate them on what sorts of foods the pantry needs most – usually ready-made meals in the case of students – their efforts could be put to better use.

A bigger problem, however, is getting students to use resources that are available to them. UWRF Assistant Director of Health Promotion Keven Syverson said that the social stigma attached to accepting help from places like the food shelter can be especially bad when there’s a general community mentality that students who have enough money to pay for school should have enough money to buy their own food.

“Sometimes that’s an issue,” Syverson said, “to help the community understand that, yes, our students are struggling, they do need food, they do have food insecurity issues.”

Going forward, Reilly-Myklebust added, the challenge will be to ensure that students understand that the food pantry is available for their use. Once the survey gives Health and Counseling Services a good idea of how much of a need there is, they can begin dispelling myths and ensuring students know how to use the food pantry.

“That’s why we’re here,” Anderson from the pantry said. “We want to make sure everybody is eating, because there’s no reason for people not to be able to eat food when they’re hungry.”

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