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At School Street Food Pantry, college students find more than food on the shelves

A food pantry client adds a carton of yogurt to her cart at the food pantry at Jewish Family Services in Denver, Colo.
Seth McConnell
Denver Post via Getty Images
In the beginning, and for the first 1 1/2 years of operation, the School Street Food Pantry served about 80-90 students each Friday that it was open. Then came COVID-19.

When School Street Food Pantry opened in 2018, its organizers had food insecurity at the forefront of their minds.

During a meeting of a group of Illinois State University staff and students, Normal Township members and representatives from the pantry's soon-to-be-home, Normal First United Methodist Church, the food pantry's organizers agreed there was a need for a food pantry whose primary demographic would be college students.

In the beginning, and for the first 1 1/2 years of operations, the pantry served about 80-90 students each Friday that it was open. Then came COVID-19.

"Our numbers went up fairly dramatically, so we were serving maybe 120 students from March until the end of that semester," pantry board chair and retired executive director of alumni engagement Doris Groves said. This semester, with the return of in-person classes, "we've seen our numbers go up again, so we're serving maybe 110 students on average each week."

"We were sort of all anticipating that by August or September, this might be over," she said. "We were not expecting it to be such a prolonged experience."

In the days where hand sanitizer and toilet paper were difficult to come by at grocery stores, Groves said School Street Food Pantry sought out those items along with food, passing them to students who couldn't afford it themselves.

But perhaps one of the ultimate services that pantry has provided beyond food, is its ability to serve as a sort resource hub for those who aren't sure where else to turn.

"The people who volunteer in the pantry get to know the students really well," pantry board member and ISU interim assistant vice president for student success Amelia Noёl-Elkins said. "I think that is really one of the most important things: It's the food they get, but it's also all of these other networking connections — particularly in the time of COVID, some of these students may not have been aware of services for them that exist above and beyond the food pantry."

In particular, both Groves and Noёl-Elkins said they saw a need for that kind of connection among international students, especially during the early days of the pandemic, where travels could be restricted, financial resources depleted, and the so-called "normal" college experience moved online, isolating students who were already faced challenges of a new place.

"If you think back to the fall of 2020, those students were here on campus — some of them had just arrived on-campus for their first semester," Groves said. "Coming to the pantry on a Friday afternoon became part of their routine of seeing people, of connecting with people and seeing other international students. I think the pantry almost became a reflection of their experience in the United States because it was one of the times where they were actually interacting with people from the Bloomington-Normal community, people from the church and with people from ISU."

Juniors and seniors, along with graduate students, are the other majority groups served by the pantry. Most of the students — Groves estimates "94%" — come from ISU, but the pantry is open to those from Illinois Wesleyan University and Heartland Community College as well.

And if, for whatever reason, it's difficult to believe that college students would have trouble sourcing food, Noёl-Elkins would understand: She's aware of a host of "assumptions, globally" about what it means to have access to money in college, be it financial aid, grants or otherwise.

"The money is not limitless. ... I think what I see is that a lot of students come unprepared to think about (financial) conversations or have those conversations," she said. "They may have been sheltered from those conversations by their families trying to protect them, and then it gets real in college. It's a very difficult conversation for them to have."

Groves added the matter is also one of equity, not just financial management.

"Sometimes the public thinks that college students don't have those needs and I think we do have to ... educate the general public that not all college students are created equal in terms of the resources that they have," she said.

Study results vary on a number of factors and which universities were sampled — that said, a fall 2020 survey of a 1,000-student sample of undergraduate students found that 52% had struggled with food insecurity, resulting in the use of an food pantry. The survey, completed jointly by three groups including textbook rental service Chegg, found that over a third of students personally knew someone who'd dropped out of college, choosing food security over the cost of college.

Since the beginning over the academic year in August 2021, School Street Food Pantry has served more than 1,300 students, according to Groves and Noёl-Elkins.

One study published by open-access and open-peer reviewmedical journal BMC Public Health noted that while "campus food-pantries may be useful for short-term relief," there exists a "need for additional solutions with a rights-based approach to food insecurity."

"Certainly, it is a question that we are wrestling with right now, to really try to identify, is there additional need out there?" Groves said. "Is there need at some of the other schools besides Illinois State University that we're not addressing? And are we able to do that? And how would we do that? I think it will require us doing some research, gathering some information ... and then really looking at the availability of resources."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.