Tackling the Challenge (and the Stigma) of Student Food Insecurity

Image of a meal

In 12 years, the number of food pantries on college campuses has grown from 1 to 700. However, due to the cultural stigma of facing hunger, the existence of a food pantry, by itself, does not solve the issue of student food insecurity.

In early 2019, the Hope Center reported that up to 45% of today’s higher education students face food insecurity. Many colleges and universities are responding to this alarming number by creating on campus food pantries to meet students’ dietary needs. In 2007, the College and University Food Bank Alliance knew of only one food pantry operating on a college campus. As of October 2019, the Government Accountability Office estimated that this number had grown to more than 700!

While this growth is remarkable, the existence of a food pantry does not guarantee that food-insecure students are receiving the assistance that they need. The cultural stigma associated with facing hunger in the United States, of being seen by their peers receiving free food, can discourage students from utilizing on-campus pantries.

The fear of stigma leaves administrators tasked with pantry operation with some difficult logistical choices:

  • Should they select a location for the pantry with low foot traffic, such as a basement or down a dark hallway to preserve anonymity – at the risk that students will be unaware that it exists or unable to find it?
  • Or, should they select a central location with high foot traffic so that students know it exists – at the risk that hungry students will choose to walk by without entering, due to the social stigma?

While conducting research into the many challenges of addressing food insecurity in higher education, we found an excellent example of how these challenge can be navigated successfully – at Metropolitan State University Denver (MSU).

The Strategy: Provide Privacy in a Busy Space

Until recently, MSU’s Roadrunner Food Pantry was located in a little known corner in the campus basement. As the need for the pantry grew, so too did their need for space. Instead of moving to a larger location in a similarly out-of-the-way area of campus, associate dean Dave Haden and case management coordinator Erica Quintana-Garcia chose a new location in the Student Union. The new space is larger, centrally located, and has windows that face a busy walkway.

To create a sense of privacy for students who visit the pantry, large branded decals were used to cover the windows. These decals call attention to the existence of the pantry and encourage students to use the resource while also creating privacy for those inside.

By moving the food pantry into this central location, it becomes a resource for the entire community, which will hopefully also, over time, reduce the stigma associated with taking advantage of this resource. Mitigating that stigma is key to providing assistance to the students who need it most.

Key Considerations

If you are considering creating a food pantry on your campus, or moving your already-established pantry, ask yourself these key questions:

1. What is most important?
Is it more important to create a private environment for students who do visit the pantry, or make more students aware that the pantry exists? Where is your priority? And are there ways for you to accomplish both of these goals, as MSU did?
2. What do the students want?
Consider asking the students what they want. What is their top priority – convenient location or privacy?
3. How else can you effectively address stigma?
The location of your food pantry is just one way you can combat stigma on your campus. Consider using social media to call attention to food insecurity concerns and normalize help-seeking behaviors. Or, use a popular campus event such as a sporting event to collect goods to stock your food pantry, and in the process, to advertise the service to your student body.

Food insecurity among students enrolled in colleges and universities is a growing concern nationwide. There are many ways that you can help these students in need. The best place to start is by providing a resource for students to meet their dietary needs in a space where they feel comfortable. As we seek to meet the educational needs of students, we can’t lose sight of the importance of making sure their basic needs are also met, if we are to provide them with the opportunity to succeed.