Helping Hand On-campus pantry serves up food security

By Bailey Chenevert for La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Deante Skidmore grabbed a box of penne and a can of tomato sauce from the shelves of Campus Cupboard. He’d usually make both “from scratch,” he said, but time and money are often tight for the UL Lafayette junior.

Skidmore is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology and works full time at Cypress Lake Dining Hall on campus. During the summer, he works two jobs to pay his monthly expenses and to save for tuition. He puts in almost 60 hours a week in classes and at work, spending rare time at home studying or sleeping.

Every two weeks, Skidmore budgets enough money for food to last him until his next paycheck. He still occasionally runs short. He said being able to make ends meet with food and toiletries from the Cupboard “means a lot.”

“There are a lot of college students like me who have to support themselves completely, and it’s expensive. There’s definitely a need for places like Campus Cupboard,” he said.

Located in UL Lafayette’s Intensive English Building at 413 Brook Ave., Campus Cupboard simulates a grocery store, but without a checkout line. Student volunteers give patrons plastic bags at the entrance to hold selections of nonperishable items, such as rice, beans, canned fruit and tuna, and protein bars, and ingredients to cook with, such as flour, sugar and vegetable oil.

The Cupboard also offers deodorant, soap, toothbrushes and other toiletries, and has a two-door refrigerator for fresh produce and bread. It’s all kept in two storage rooms lined with chrome-plated steel shelves.

Students often experience food insecurity because of circumstances they can’t control. They may have unexpected expenses, exhausted monthly meal plan allotments, or had to spend money on school supplies that once had been allocated to buy food. According to a 2016 report by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, more than half of food-insecure students have to choose between buying food or purchasing textbooks.

Many students can’t rely on financial support from parents, either. Some may be parents themselves. The same report labeled 71 percent of U.S. college students as “nontraditional.” That means that in addition to pursuing degrees, they are raising families or working full time. The report also defines international students as nontraditional.

Yan Ma moved to the U.S. from Beijing to pursue a graduate degree in communicative disorders and speech pathology. He’s also raising a 6-year-old daughter who lives with him.

“Because I have a family, I’m always trying to save money,” he said.

Ma turned to the Cupboard for help, and estimates saving about 20 percent on his typical grocery bill as a result. While individuals are limited to 17 items, students such as Ma who are supporting families can take up to 40. He said relieving even a bit of financial stress in meeting his family’s basic needs enables him to “concentrate and enjoy my studies again.”

Dr. Rose Honegger is the University’s assistant director of Global Engagement. She served on the committee that began planning the Cupboard in 2017. For international and domestic students alike, access to food is an issue of success and retention, she said.

“I have seen students in my office who have had to choose between paying rent or buying grocery items. It’s difficult to concentrate on an essay when you’re hungry,” Honegger said. She noted that hungry students are more likely to skip classes, or fall behind in or drop courses than their peers.

When Campus Cupboard opened in November 2018, it joined more than 600 other food pantries at universities in the United States that offer temporary assistance to students. Like many of those institutions, UL Lafayette has had to confront a cultural stigma associated with asking for help. The Cupboard’s volunteers counter students’ hesitation by making the pantry an inviting space.

Many food assistance programs require patrons to prove their financial shortcomings, but the Cupboard allows students to state their own need. After filling out a form the first time they use the pantry, students are welcome to come back as often as they need. Volunteers also put up posters and leave leaflets across campus informing students, faculty and staff that the Cupboard is available to them.

Trey Delcambre is a psychology graduate student who serves as Campus Cupboard’s coordinator. He called the stigma of food insecurity in the United States “weird.”

“In America, we have an achievement-based culture, so if you can’t provide for yourself, people believe it’s your fault, but there are a lot of systemic issues that come up that make it hard to eat nutritionally,” Delcambre said.

Hunger on college campuses is part of a larger food security challenge the United States faces, said Dr. Pearson Cross, associate dean of the University’s College of Liberal Arts. He spearheaded the Cupboard planning committee.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates one in six households in Louisiana experiences food insecurity at some point during a year. Nationally, one in eight Americans struggles with hunger. Yet it often remains difficult for people, no matter their age, to ask for assistance, Cross said. “We feel that those who need help should get help. Students who come in have wrestled with that issue already and are happy to have this resource.”

The Cupboard relies on support from individuals, churches and community organizations, including Second Harvest and United Way of Acadiana. It’s also powered by students and volunteers who are dedicated to helping students eat nutritionally and affordably.

Affordability is something computer science doctoral student Debanjali Banerjee thinks about often. Like Skidmore, Banerjee budgets for the month, but often can’t stretch the dollars to meet her needs.

She works as a graduate assistant, and her salary is divided among rent, health insurance and groceries. She said she uses the Cupboard when the end of her paycheck approaches and her pantry is emptying.

“Sometimes my budget runs out, and I just need something extra at the end of the month, and Campus Cupboard has those necessary things. It’s really a great resource.”

  • 48 percent of students reported monthly food insecurity.
  • 56 percent of first-generation students were food insecure.
  • 64 percent of food-insecure students reported experiencing housing insecurity.
  • 54 percent of respondents reported having to choose between buying food or textbooks.
  • 53 percent of food-insecure students reported missing classes as a result of hunger.
  • 25 percent reported dropping a class as a result of hunger.

Source: The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness

This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Photo: Trey Delcambre, coordinator of Campus Cupboard, refills shelves with nonperishable food (University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas).

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