Salt Lake City colleges offering pantries to help students facing food

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

The idea of the “starving college student” is ingrained in American culture, but within the past couple years, this stereotype has become reality for more and more students.

Because of that, more students are turning to such resources as SNAP benefits and food pantries, which offer groceries and other essential items at no cost.

“Our communities are only as healthy as the most vulnerable people in our communities,” said Gina Cornia, director of Utahns Against Hunger. “We should want everyone in our communities to be well fed and well nourished.”

Prices for groceries have risen substantially in recent months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, due largely to inflation, and this has boosted food insecurity. Someone who is experiencing food insecurity cannot consistently access enough food to live a healthy life, anti-hunger groups say.

The direct way to reduce food insecurity is to promote food access. Food pantries are a means of promoting food access on college campuses at the ground floor.

A growing number of students have been using these resources — which are often volunteer-run and donation-based — since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. More college-age adults have reportedly encountered food insecurity, as that group has been most threatened by job loss in the wake of pandemic layoffs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s most recent basic needs insecurity report from fall 2020, 38% of two-year college students and 29% of four-year college students reported low food security within the previous 30 days. This shows a climb among community college students from pre-pandemic studies, which report that 30% of all students have experienced food insecurity at some point during college.

Cornia, said low-income students face an “uphill battle” in balancing the cost of living with the costs of education.

“As a community and as a society, we need to do more to support kids who are going to school to get better jobs, to move their families out of poverty, and to make a better life for themselves,” said Cornia, who has served as the organization’s director for 21 years.

Food insecurity hits different types of students for different reasons, and the types of students that food pantries serve the most can vary between colleges.

“A lot of international students do struggle with food insecurity because visa restrictions prevent them from working,” said Ashton Pelley, director of the Feed U pantry at the University of Utah. “When that happens, money is just coming out of your account with no other source of income for you to pay for tuition.”

Westminster College, a private institution that has higher tuition than most state-run schools, also hosts students who face food insecurity. Kiva Call-Fiet, the basic needs coordinator for Westminster’s Purple Basket program, described a class divide at the school.

“While there’s a smaller ratio of students experiencing food insecurity at private schools, it’s definitely still an issue,” said Call-Fiet, an environmental studies major at Westminster.

While the school offers many scholarship opportunities for students in financial need, that aid typically only covers tuition or room and board, she said.

Diya Shah, coordinator for Salt Lake Community College’s four Bruin Pantries, leads volunteers who serve the school’s students, faculty and staff at four campuses across the valley. Student volunteers work 8 to 10 hours each week in return for tuition reimbursement, which she said has been a successful incentive to prompt students to commit to working at the pantry.

“Any issues we care about in the world – whether it’s the environment, indigenous issues, immigration, racism, queer issues – food is able to explain a lot of these issues,” Shah said. She believes that food access is a baseline problem that can lead to other social disparities.

Since taking the job in May, Shah has turned her focus towards expanding the types of foods offered in the pantries, so the pantries can best serve SLCC’s diverse student body.

“If you have Muslim students coming in, and you have a bunch of ham, it’s not really addressing food…

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