As we prepare for Thanksgiving, two items are always the topic of conversation — what are you most grateful for and what food is on the menu. But rarely do we put those items together and think about being grateful for food. I hope this holiday we will reflect on just that, being grateful for what we have and understanding the challenges faced by food and housing insecure students.
Last week, as we in higher education marked Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, I was reminded of just how real this problem is on college campuses across the country, including right here in Colorado. Hunger and homelessness strike rural and urban campuses alike but disproportionately affect low-income and first-generation students. The problems are often intertwined: national surveys show about 65 percent of food insecure students also report experiencing some type of housing insecurity. Nearly half of community college students report facing food insecurity in the last 30 days, and more than 20 percent had low enough levels of food to qualify as hungry.
Colorado institutions are not immune to these trends, but many are stepping up to help. Of the 31 state public colleges and universities, 19 have established food or housing support programs, and others plan to roll out resources in the coming years. Many schools also refer their students to nearby food banks and resource centers for extra assistance.
The Bear Pantry leads the way
One successful project is the Bear Pantry at University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley. We got to see it in action last Monday during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Reyna Anaya, assistant director of community standards, and Danny Garcia, a graduate assistant, gave us a quick overview on how the pantry is making a difference. Established in 2014, it’s a place where students can receive up to five food or personal hygiene items twice a week.
The pantry ran on independent donations until a student government leader proposed and passed a $2.50 annual student fee to fund it. As the program met capacity, UNC stepped up institutional support with help from private donations and local Wells Fargo branches, which organize food drives year round. Alumni are getting involved, and UNC staff and faculty members can opt for a payroll deduction that directly supports the Bear Pantry.
Thanks to this support, the program is poised to assist even more students this year. The pantry has seen more than 3,500 visits since 2015 and has served more than 725 students this year alone. Through the Bear Share program, students can also donate their unused meal swipes to classmates in need, a project that has provided more than 450 hot meals to students over the last year.
Students share their stories
To learn more about the pantry, we sat down with undergraduate and graduate students who have a connection to the program, either as beneficiaries, staff members or both.
Autumn, a senior, eagerly applied to work as a Bear Pantry program assistant. “Hunger should not get in the way of your academics,” the psychology major said. “Having the Bear Pantry on campus is so important, because if you have food, you can succeed.”
Josiah, a fellow staffer at the Bear Pantry, said it offers a critical safety net for students. “When you look around, you think everyone has a plan,” he said. “Sometimes there are parts of the month when money is low and people have to go without food. Everyone goes through lows in college, and it’s usually those lows that determine whether you stay in college.”
Graduate student Susana echoed Josiah, noting it’s not just undergraduates who struggle. She said parents and graduate students often visit the pantry. The key to this work is to promote it as community building — not as a problem. “People don’t realize they’ve been experiencing food insecurity their whole lives. If that’s your world, that’s your norm,” she observed. “When students get to campus, staff doesn’t make them feel that they have a problem, we focus instead on what the university can do to help,” she said.
That’s part of the Bear Pantry culture meant to remove the stigma around seeking assistance by creating a welcoming community for new and returning students to come for food, friendship and support. They also rely on peer-to-peer marketing and encourage classmates to bring a friend to make it easier for first-time visitors.
Helping “all who wish to learn”
The dedication of these UNC students reminded me of one of Colorado’s education pioneers, Emily Griffith. The founder of the “Opportunity School” knew that life often got in the way of education, and she was determined to help students rise above their circumstances.
Griffith opened her school in 1916 and offered free education “for all who wish to learn.” It quickly grew in popularity, but when a student fainted from hunger one day, Griffith figured others were likely struggling too. She asked her mother and sister to make soup for her students. As other community members pitched in, the family was able to feed 200 students a day.
Over one hundred years later, we’re still fighting to meet the basic needs of our students and ensure neither hunger nor homelessness become barriers to success. I’m proud of the campus leaders across the state who are following Griffith’s example in spreading educational opportunity and directly addressing hunger issues as well.
We all must do our part. By raising awareness, coordinating services and donating our time and resources, we can help stamp out campus hunger and homelessness for good.
Donate your time, funds or other resources
College and university pantries typically accept food and cash donations. We encourage you to give and to ask about high need items before dropping off supplies. In this season of gratitude, as we count our many blessings, please consider supporting our college students who will be grateful for the gift of food.
Four-Year Colleges and Universities
- Colorado State University Rams Against Hunger
- Colorado State University Pueblo Pack Pantry
- Metropolitan State University of Denver Food Bank
- Fort Lewis College Grub Hub
- University of Colorado Denver Food Pantry
- University of Colorado Colorado Springs Clyde’s Cupboard
- University of Northern Colorado Bear Pantry