When Iowa State University senior Zachary Krueger first heard about a food pantry opening on his college campus, he knew he wanted to go, but he hesitated to step inside. "I had to stop and steel myself to go in," the liberal studies major said. "Basically getting into the mindset that I had no reason to be embarrassed."
That emotion quickly faded after he was greeted by friendly volunteers who urged him to take as much food as he needed. He was relieved. Krueger said he walked out of the pantry thinking about how "mind boggling" it is that so much of his budget goes just to food. "Now that's going to plummet so much," he said. "I think I'll be able to get out of the cycle I'm in of borrowing money from people and giving up more and more of the things I love to do because they cost even the littlest amount of money."
Krueger said he knows that the fact that some college students are in need of food assistance may be hard for some people to swallow. "I understand that it would be difficult for people to accept that a person could afford tuition but not three meals a day, or two," he said. "So I request that skeptics try to suspend judgment on the matter for a while, and let the success of [ISU's food pantry] as it continues speak for itself."
ISU and the University of Arkansas opened food pantries this month, adding to a growing list of universities that includes Utah State University, Bakersfield College in California, University of California-Davis, and West Virginia University.
ISU sophomores Hailey Boudreau and Sarah Schwanebeck decided to start a campus food pantry after taking a class that encouraged them to find ways to support food assistance needs in the community. Using City-Data.com, a website that collects and analyzes data from U.S. cities, they looked at the breakdown by age of those living below the poverty level in Ames, Iowa and found that the biggest percentage were 18 to 24-year-olds. But after talking to local food pantries and students, Boudreau and Schwanebeck found that students weren't using the area food pantries because they were too far from campus.
WVU found the same problem among its students, which is why the university opened a food pantry in September of last year. "If you have it right on campus, it won't take [students] from the environment," said Jacqueline Dooley, program coordinator for student organization services at WVU. "They can stay on campus, grab food, and go to their classes. It's convenient."
Dooley said 18 students used the food pantry in the last week of January. To get food, students simply walk in and take what they need. "A lot of students are embarrassed," Dooley said. "We did not want to bring attention to them...so we wanted to make it as least invasive as possible."
Over at the University of Arkansas, graduate student John Jones knew his fellow students needed some help after hearing stories of students taking food from dining halls, sleeping in cars and campus buildings, and showing up to events just for the free food, "It finally got to the point where our students said 'Enough. We have to do something about this,'" Jones said. He and other students and staff worked together to create a food pantry on campus.
The U of A pantry stocks foods such as canned vegetables, brown rice, peanut butter, and ramen noodles. It will also offer personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes and laundry detergent. "It's important because we've come to understand that if our students aren't having their basic needs met, then they can't fully focus on their educational pursuits," Jones said.
U of A students who want to use the pantry must go to its website, fill out demographic information, check off the food items they want, and then submit their order. Pantry workers will then package a three-day supply of food for the student, who must show his or her university ID to pick up the order. Students are limited to using the food pantry once per week.
The University of Central Florida opened its food pantry in 2009 in a small storage room in the student union, but it has now moved to a larger location that has the capacity to store 6,000 pounds of food. UCF conducted an anonymous survey of some students who use the pantry. "I haven't eaten in two days," wrote one UCF student. "I was reluctant to come. But I'm glad I did." Another student wrote:"With only one of my parents working and my sister onto law school in the fall, I have been hesitant to ask for grocery money these past few months. Instead, I would survive on leftover yogurt and frozen veggies. This time one of my friends suggested that I try going to The Pantry and I'm so glad that I did!"
Willis Chico, UCF's community outreach coordinator, says the food pantry really serves a need. "We are not in any way, shape, or form a free supermarket," he said. "We are here to aid students who really need that food." Students must show their UCF ID to get food from the pantry. No identifying information is stored. Chico said so far no one has abused that privilege. "Students don't take more than they need," he said. "Students are actually respecting the honor system."
At U of A, students organized a food pantry after hearing stories about other students on campus in need of food assistance, but administrators also looked at statistics on hunger for the state of Arkansas. At WVU, administrators read an article from NPR about college students who are too ashamed to admit they need food assistance, leading WVU personnel to believe that there were probably students on their campus who were in that situation.
Campus food pantries are run mostly on donations. At ISU in January, about 1,400 canned goods were donated by students in just one night. And ever since WVU's food pantry started last year, Dooley said the support has been "phenomenal." Monetary donations have come in from as far as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. A food drive held at WVU last semester brought in more than 9,000 items for the pantry.
Dooley said it has been "heartwarming and thrilling" to see the number of students who appreciate WVU's campus food pantry. She read a letter from one student who wrote, "I don't know if I will even make my rent this November. It's nice to know I don't have to worry about how I will eat."
U of A has even gotten help from major corporations. Tyson Foods has pledged to give a grant to the food pantry. Sam's Club donated $1,000 and has promised a monthly gift. Wal-Mart hosted a food drive for U of A at its corporate headquarters.
Although students at both ISU and U of A have been hindered from visiting their campus food pantries because of the snowstorms over the past week, Boudreau and Jones say they expect business to pick up soon. Bourdreau said she expects the pantry to eventually serve about 30 students per week. Jones said he eventually expects anywhere from 50 to 100 students weekly.
ABCNews.com contributor Amy Rigby is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Gainesville, Fla.