College is a time of exciting new opportunities — but for many students, it can also be a period of financial strain.
Research shows that college students are three times as likely to experience food insecurity compared to the average U.S. household. At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, one in three regularly worry about not having enough food to eat.
“Students tend to prioritize things like rent over food,” said Megan Patel, program coordinator for Student Affairs. “They feel like food is the most flexible thing, because maybe they could get something from a friend or find a free pizza meeting that’s happening on campus.”
Four years ago, Nebraska set out to change that by opening the Husker Pantry. The on-campus service provides free food and hygiene items to students, serving an average of 122 Huskers per week.
“Students have a lot going on, and they’ve just always expressed to us that they feel really thankful that we have this resource available to them,” Patel said.
On Feb. 17 and 18, Huskers can help keep the pantry’s shelves stocked and provide a meal to a student in need by donating to the Glow Big Red campaign. The 24-hour giving event allows donors to direct a custom gift to specific colleges, programs, student organizations and more.
Helping students stay in school
Food insecurity can have a significant impact on students’ mental health and academic performance. Faced with the choice of finding their next meal or continuing their degree, many are forced to leave school to work more and support themselves.
“With everything happening this year, I’m not sure if I would have been able to stay in school without the help of outside programs,” one pantry visitor wrote in an anonymous survey.
Students’ only requirement for using the pantry is an NCard and current enrollment in at least one credit hour. No low-income designation needs to be met.
Older students, including graduate students and those with families, are the most frequent visitors to the pantry.
“We see a lot of students who have either a spouse or young children,” Patel said. “They have a lot on their plate, going to school while sometimes being the only source of income for their family.”
The most popular items at the pantry are snacks, such as granola bars and trail mix. Hygiene items such as shampoo, soap, toothpaste and deodorant are also available. Depending on the week, the pantry even hands out diapers for those with families.
A time of need
Retail and service positions, which are more likely to be held by college-aged students, have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
As a result, pantry usage has increased 30% over the past year. In the past six months, over 35,000 items have been handed out, with each visitor taking home an average of 19 items.
“Our need right now is the highest we’ve ever seen,” Patel said.
To continue supporting students during the pandemic, the Husker Pantry began offering a new curbside pickup option in July. In-person shopping is no longer allowed due to social distancing requirements, but many visitors have enjoyed the change.
“It’s so convenient and makes me feel more comfortable and not ashamed,” an anonymous student wrote about curbside pickup.
The pantry also started handing out meal tickets last spring. Each ticket admits students to a dining hall on campus, where they can enjoy a hot meal.
“We’ve given out 7,000 meal tickets this year,” Patel said. “Each ticket is relatively inexpensive, so even the smallest donation can make a huge difference in the life of a student who is struggling.”
Those wishing to donate can visit the Glow Big Red website for more information.
“Because so many in-person donation drives have been canceled due to COVID-19, events like Glow Big Red have really helped us out,” Patel said. “The Husker community has always rallied around us, and we appreciate their support so much.”