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Maize & Blue Cupboard president Zoe Hawtof

Feeding the Starving Student

Pinched between limited incomes and high costs, students are turning to campus food pantries.

by Anita LeBlanc

From the December, 2015 issue

A paper bag of produce and some small bags of chips and Doritos will help U-M grad student Gaurav Mehda be less vulnerable to food insecurity, which the USDA defines as the "limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable food in acceptable ways."

Mehda is one of several students taking advantage of the Maize & Blue Cupboard's free monthly food distribution at the Michigan Union. Recently arrived from India, he heard about the food pantry from a friend. "I followed the great American tradition and got a student loan for the semester," he smiles, borrowing $17,000--$15,000 for classes and books and $2,000 for living expenses--"and that's what I needed after I got a scholarship." The $2,000 plus a ten-hour-a week, $11-an-hour job at a university research lab have to cover both his food for the semester and his room rental in a four-bedroom apartment. The Cupboard adds some fresh produce into that tight budget.

"People assume that everyone who can go to Michigan is well financed," says Cupboard president Zoe Hawtof. "While there are many kids on scholarship, many go into debt so they can go to this university. I think every student hits it [food insecurity]. I have a monthly grocery budget, and sometimes I eat beans out of a can for a week."

"There's a lingering perception of [college students as] a twenty-two-year-old getting support from home," says Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the Michigan State University Food Bank, "when the reality is it's usually a grad student trying to get by on $1,800 a month." MSU's was the first student food pantry in the nation when it opened in 1993. Recently, as other schools began turning to it for advice on starting their own programs, Smith-Tyge and Clare Cady, Oregon State University's food pantry administrator, founded the College and University Food Bank Alliance. When it launched in March 2013, "we initially had seventeen student food pantry members," Smith-Tyge says. "Our last count was 219."

He sees a couple

...continued below...

different factors driving the growth. "One is the recognition that [student food insecurity] exists. Sixty percent of grad students have families of their own with no support from home, are trying to make it on fellowships and grants, and are often not allowed to work outside their field. Post-secondary, nontraditional students--those who are working and returning to school--struggle to balance their studies, food, and home life.

"Another factor is the rising overall cost of tuition, future debt, textbooks, etc. And while some students do work and the economy has improved, there are a number of them struggling to survive on stagnant wages. There's not been a comprehensive study, but there are a lot of hard estimates and some extrapolations about on-campus food insecurity."

Feeding America, the nonprofit nationwide network of food banks, included college students for the first time in Hunger in America 2014, its quadrennial report on people seeking food assistance. Among households served by Food Gatherers, the report says, "28 percent of households report choosing between paying for food and paying for school loans, tuition, or other educational expenses at least once in the past twelve months; 13 percent face this choice every month ... 7,600 full-time and 1,200 part-time college students were among the 44,500 clients served by Food Gatherers."

"Food Gatherers partners with three student food pantries in Washtenaw County," emails Markell Miller, the group's manager of community food programs. "All programs get rescued and donated food at no cost."

Liz Orbits, manager of Washtenaw Community College's emergency food bank, says her clients include single mothers and fathers, pregnant women, homemakers seeking work skills, and students with limited English. She allows that homeless students have been among the mix. "We see more women than men," she says. "The general profile is a twenty-to-thirty-year-old single mom with two kids."

WCC's pantry provided groceries to 109 students in the 2014-2015 academic year, up from seventy-eight in 2013-2014. Clients ranged from twenty to fifty-nine years old, and 75 percent were employed. The pantry provided sixteen turkey dinners ("We buy turkeys from Food Gatherers with all the fixings for a holiday dinner") and connected twenty students with WCC's Adopt-a-Family program, which arranges holiday donations of food, housewares, clothing, toys, and hygiene products.

Food Gatherers also supplies EMU's recently opened Swoop's Student Food Pantry. "Many students have limited income and many are parents," emails its faculty advisor, Julie Harkema. "As getting a college education has become increasingly expensive, some students need to make a choice between buying a textbook and paying for necessities."


The roots of the Maize & Blue Cupboard began in the 2014 winter semester. Wesley Zhu, Forest Burczak, and other members of the student entrepreneurial club Enactus initially set out to rescue food from local restaurants and grocery stores and distribute it to students and others. The plan shifted when they found that most area restaurants and grocery stores, as well as the on-campus Student Recovery Network, were already donating to Food Gatherers. After brainstorming with Food Gatherers, they decided to leave food rescue to the older group and focus on distribution.

Keith Soster, director of Student Engagement for Michigan Dining, suggested concentrating on grad students. "We connected with North Campus graduate communities by sending a survey link to and talking with resident assistants," Burczak says. "The results confirmed that grad students had food insecurity. We connected with Food Gatherers and arranged for them to deliver produce to distribute to students on campus and formed partnerships with churches to arrange monthly distributions."

The University of Michigan Student Food Pantry, as it was then called, held its first pilot run at the Christian Reformed Church on Broadway in April 2014. That summer it partnered with Student Food Co., a student group that runs a weekly produce stand at Haven Hall. Soon after, Burczak says, they changed the name to the Maize & Blue Cupboard to clarify its identify as a student-, rather than university-run, organization. Zoe Hawtof, who is also the vice president of marketing for the Student Food Co., says "cupboard" also carries less stigma.

Zhu says that the initial food distribution confirmed that grad students, especially those trying to support families, were the largest population in need, followed by students living in off-campus co-operative housing without meal plans. The Cupboard held its first regular distribution at the First Baptist Church in November 2014 and continued through the end of the university's winter semester in April.

When the volunteers resumed this September, "we wanted an on-campus, non-denominational location, so we moved the distribution to the Michigan Union," he explains. The Cupboard is open on the third Wednesday of the month from 6 to 9 p.m. "We generally have five to six Circle K [campus Kiwanis] and other U-M student volunteers that help unload the truck and then help distribute mostly bread, produce, and a few canned goods to the thirty to forty students that come." Any leftovers are delivered to the local Salvation Army for its pantry the next day.

Zhu and Burczak are getting ready to leave the Cupboard as they near graduation. That's one reason they aligned with Hawtof, who says that she's one of the youngest people on board.

"Right now, all our food is donated. We get some university funding and don't pay rent for the [space at the] Union," she explains. "We definitely want to be a charity nonprofit, to be more a part of the university, and slowly work with dining services and incorporate more with U-M ... We'll be in the Union for at least a year or two, depending on funding and how it goes with 501c3 [IRS nonprofit status]. That will let us know whether we can afford a facility for dairy, milk, eggs, and meat."

"We're looking to increase both the amount of food given away and the frequency of distributions," Burczak says. "But we're scaling this based on the demand. We want to make sure that every distribution has a strong number of recipients. We expect this year the food amount given to increase significantly, but it will be another school year before we can increase the frequency of distributions."


WCC's emergency food pantry, established in 2001, was the county's first college food pantry. Located in a small room within the Student Resource and Women's Center, it initially stocked only nonperishable foods from Food Gatherers. It has since branched out to include hygiene products as well as diapers, cleaning, and laundry supplies, paper towels, and toilet paper, all items that families need but are rarely available at other food pantries.

In addition to Food Gatherers, Orbits emails, "Several times a year, the congregation at the First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor brings us hygiene and food items. The Richard Bailey Library does a 'Food for Fines' program a couple times of year. The library will offer to waive past due book fines up to seven dollars to students who bring in canned food donations. Students and faculty also provide donations.

"Students can get two bags twice a semester as long as they are on our caseload. We consider ourselves an emergency food pantry, so we try and get students connected to community pantries, but they can use it as long as they are at WCC."

Students are usually referred by a campus social work case manager, but sometimes an email from a faculty member will set the wheels in motion.

Bonnie Arnett, who teaches developmental reading at WCC's Academic and Career Skills department, is one faculty member who's made referrals. She says the typical student she sees in need of help is "a single mom, pregnant, with one or two kids, whose partner has walked out on her."

In the past, Arnett identified students to refer based on their class writing assignments. So as not to single out one student, she would tell the entire class about the availability of on-campus food.

"We'd lose so many students who would react to [for example] losing their car and then quitting school. If they came to us before they quit, we could've told them about other options, including giving them bus tokens."

Now Arnett starts each semester by giving students a "Barriers to Being Successful at WCC" form. Child care, substance abuse, financial, work schedule, and other challenges are listed. Students can circle the problems pertinent to them and turn the form in anonymously, or supply their name, contact information, and signature for permission to be directed to WCC resource staff for help.

"We get it out of the way early," Arnett explains. "We don't need to lose them mid-semester when preventive action could help."


Food Gatherers' Miller points out that most college students aren't eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), "however, there are specific exemptions that allow some students to receive them. These include those who work [at least twenty hours a week], have young children, or are disabled."

Others turn to food pantries in the community. "We're aware there are students in our mix," says Kathy Daly, co-chair of the weekly Back Door Food Pantry at St. Clare's Episcopal Church/Temple Beth Emeth. "I can't give you specifics. We've got a broad range of people here. Everybody's here for one reason--they need food."

One grad student spoke on condition of anonymity while waiting her turn to fill two bags with perishable and nonperishable food at the Back Door pantry. "Frances," an out-of-state senior who will graduate this month, says she is not starving but using her resources wisely. "I'll have to start paying my undergrad loans. They're deferred, so I don't have to pay while I'm in grad school. Graduate school is very expensive, even with my scholarship. I've been fortunate enough that I haven't been hungry. If I had to make payments, it might be a different story. After graduation, we'll see what happens."

Frances says she doesn't feel any stigma about accepting free food--because she's been on the other side: "I used to volunteer [at a food bank] when I was growing up and had family members who were paid administrators," she says. "It's a very familiar environment for me."


This article has been edited since it was published in the December 2015 Ann Arbor Observer. Markell Miller provided the information about SNAP eligibility.     (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2015.]


On December 29, 2015, kate wrote:
My coworker has VERY high income yet his daughter at UM was able to secure a bridge card for her food due to her being independent and even her trust fund wasn't used for consideration. I recall they went by only her income which was $0 and then only $5 for her med work interning at an old folks home. Fair or not - something to think about.

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