Reducing barriers to success

Indiana State tackles national issue of campus hunger by launching a food pantry for students.

Some college students are faced with tough choices: Buy groceries, or pay for books? Eat dinner, or pay for car insurance? Feed my children, or pay my tuition bill?

Indiana State doesn’t want them to have to make those difficult decisions. Instead, campus leaders want Sycamores to be able to focus fully on their classes, internships and student groups, without the distraction of a rumbling stomach.

In January, the campus launched the Sycamore Pantry to provide food, hygiene products and other essentials to any student who needs them. The pantry, located inside the Student Recreation Center, is one piece of State’s broader efforts to support students academically, mentally, physically and emotionally.

“We know it’s not easy to ask for help, but we want folks to know that we’re here and we’re not ever going to judge them,” said Amanda Hobson, interim dean of students. “We want them to be able to come to Indiana State and be successful. And in order to be successful, they need to eat.”

Being hungry or worrying about their next meal prevents students from giving schoolwork their full attention, so the pantry connects directly with Indiana State’s student success goals, which include improving the first-year retention rate and the six-year graduation rate and awarding more degrees to at-risk students.

“What we know from all the research is that a hungry person does not perform as well academically and socially because, how do you concentrate when you’re hungry?” Hobson said. “This is very much a retention tool for us. It’s a way to make sure that all of our students are at least on the most equitable playing field when it comes to hunger.”

Food insecurity has long existed at campuses around the country, but recent conversations and national initiatives related to hunger among students at all levels have shined a light on the issue, Hobson said.

In the past, people may have assumed that all college students live in residence halls, which means they have meal plans. But many students live off campus, and even those who live in the residence halls still have to contend with semester breaks and the summer months, when dining halls may be closed.

On top of that, students may already be working long hours and can’t necessarily pick up more shifts without sacrificing their studies.

“We’re finally acknowledging something that has always been an issue,” said Hobson. “We associate college with gaining weight your freshman year, not with making tough choices about whether you’re going to eat.

Stocked primarily with donations from the ISU community, the Sycamore Pantry is full of hygiene products and foods like canned vegetables and fruits, canned chicken and tuna, grains, rice, pasta and ramen noodles.

There are also recipe cards with meal ideas that incorporate foods from the pantry. One recipe card, for example, provides inspiration for making ramen noodles four ways — ramen spaghetti, ramen tomato soup, chili ramen and ramen pad thai.

Students can visit the Sycamore Pantry once a week and take up to 13 food items and three non-food items as needed (couples and families are allotted additional items). They’re required to show their student ID in order to take items from the pantry, which helps the university better understand food insecurity on campus.

During the spring semester, for example, 185 students took advantage of the pantry, with 96 students returning more than once, said Lauren Baines, director of Student Health Promotion.

The food pantry’s location makes it inconspicuous; students can walk in with a gym bag or backpack and leave with items from the pantry, without their peers knowing the purpose of their visit.

“We want to reduce barriers,” said Andy Morgan, interim vice president for student affairs. “Some people may have that shame or that embarrassment, and we’re trying to reduce those barriers so people can be academically successful, so they can better themselves and their families.”

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