RALEIGH — North Carolina is part of a national boom of new food pantries that are sprouting in a surprising location: college campuses.
The latest opened at N.C. Central University in Durham on Tuesday, joining others at N.C. State University, Meredith College, Durham Technical Community College and at least four other North Carolina schools. Nearly all the pantries are less than 18 months old, and plans for one on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus are in discussion.
“Every time you turn around, another one is popping up,” said Sally Parlier, the volunteer services coordinator at Durham Tech, who works with the pantry there and advised NCCU on how to start and run its own.
The pantries feed mainly students but also staff, and the rise in teaching by low-paid adjuncts means that even in some cases faculty are relying on them.
Driving the proliferation of higher-ed pantries is a host of things, including ever-rising college costs and lingering fallout from the recession, said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the the food bank at Michigan State University and co-founder of an umbrella group called the College and University Food Bank Alliance
The cost of higher education jumped nearly 540 percent from 1985 to last year, compared with an increase of 286 percent for medical costs and 121 percent of inflation in the Consumer Price Index over the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
It’s also true, said several people involved with the pantries, that there had long been problems with hunger on campus, even before the recession, but awareness about it has grown.
“In college, there are these things that are kind of normalized, like couch-surfing or people saying ‘Oh, man, I’m broke,’ and we just don’t think about it as being related to food security,” said Melissa Barnes, associate director of the Center for Student Leadership Ethics and Public Service at NCSU, who works closely with the student-run pantry. “It’s probably more common that we realize, and then because of the economy there are a lot of students whose parents lost their job, or who are putting themselves through school and find themselves having to chose between food and books, or food and rent.”
The food at the pantries mainly comes directly as donations, often from food drives by campus groups such as clubs, fraternities and sororities or entire academic departments or schools. Some also comes as individual donations from students, staff and faculty.
Hunger hard to quantify
Michigan State was the first university in the nation to open a pantry, 21 years ago. It was unique for more than a decade, Smith-Tyge said, and then a few others began appearing before an avalanche of them beginning in 2012.
He and Clare Cady, Human Services Resource Center coordinator at Oregon State University, were getting so many calls for advice from other campuses that they founded CUFBA last year so that all the pantries could trade tips and information.
There are about 120 college and university pantries in the country, Smith-Tyge said, of which about half are CUFBA members, and perhaps another 25 to 35 in the discussion or planning stage.
At NCSU, Peter Adams, a staff psychologist who works with students, came up with the idea of opening the pantry after it became clear that there was a hidden problem with hunger on campus.
“Anecdotally, working with 17 or 18 other clinicians here on campus, we had people every semester we were working with where it became clear that some were having trouble getting their meals, or were homeless,” Adams said.
The pantry gave out 6,500 pounds of food in its first year, which ended in November, and then expanded the number of hours it was open from 8 to 12 per week. Patronage has been climbing as word about the pantry continues to spread, said Adams.
At Durham Tech, the staff expected maybe 20 to 25 patrons a week when the pantry opened, but instead it got that number the first day and again each day that week, Parlier said.
Other than relatively imprecise measurements like how much food goes out, and how many patrons walk in, the hunger problem is hard to quantify. Some colleges are building up data with informal voluntary polling, something in the works at NCCU, but most ask patrons little about who they are and why they need food for fear of driving them away.
Ellen Furby, a senior in political science at NCSU who serves as director of the pantry, said the staff can make only educated guesses about the patrons.
“All I can tell you is that it’s a wide variety of people,” Furby said. “Most are students, but there are staff, staff with family, and faculty, but other than that, there is no way to tell any difference from the rest of the community.”
Relies on volunteers
Those who appear to be faculty are almost certainly adjunct faculty, meaning nontenured instructors who teach on contract.
At Durham Tech, most who use the pantry are students, but it’s also clear that many are staff, particularly part-timers who don’t have benefits, Parlier said.
The pantries typically operate with volunteer labor and require no funding from their host institutions. Typical for the management structure of college pantries in North Carolina is that at NCCU, which will be run by students, with an advisory board that also includes faculty and staff, said Jason O’Briant, a program director in dietetics who helped lead the effort to establish the pantry.
Central also has renovated a room next door to its pantry and is developing quick seminars that it will teach interested pantry users about subjects such as nutrition, breast feeding and how the government program for food stamps works.
NCCU has a much smaller base of students and institutions it can call on for help than, say NCSU, which has been thriving with a flood of food donations. O’Briant thinks that they may have to seek contributions of perhaps $100 a month buy some items from another food bank. But that’s one of the things they’ll have to figure out in the next few weeks as they start to learn how to operate the pantry, he said.