Helping Students Through Lean Times

Helping Students Through Lean Times

Student food pantries help fill grocery gaps while removing stigma around food insecurity

Sigma Lambda Beta Tau Alpha Chapter President Aziel Rosado (left) with Director of Recruitment and fraternity brother Percy Tito in the Student Food Pantry at Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Media Contact
Lisa Intrabartola

Hunger on college campuses is a reality.

Forty-five percent of students in a recent survey of more than 100 institutions said they had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.  In extreme cases, five percent of four-year students said they had skipped eating for a full day because they didn’t have enough money for food.

To help address food insecurity at Rutgers, the university’s Board of Trustees voted in fall 2018 to provide financial support to student-based food pantries at university locations in Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick through 2022. On Giving Tuesday, December 3, Rutgers University Foundation and the Rutgers University Alumni Association will focus fundraising efforts for a second straight year on student food pantries.

“We think if someone can afford college, they have enough money to afford food,” said Ellen Daley, a nutritionist and director of Rutgers University–Newark’s Student Food Pantry. “But the reality is many more students are coming to college thanks to scholarships. While families provide what they can to help, many students understand all too well the financial struggles that remain at home and don’t have a safety net when they run out of money.”

That was the case for fourth-year math major Aziel Rosado, 21, and four of his Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity brothers, who were among the 600 students who visited the Rutgers University–New Brunswick Student Food Pantry in 2018.

For most of them, it was their first experience living off campus and learning to budget their finances. After paying rent, utilities, and summer course tuition, there was little left for the Rutgers–New Brunswick students to refill their fridge.

“I was taking a summer class and wasn’t able to focus because of how much my stomach hurt,” Rosado said. “None of us wanted to accept it was a problem because it was a normal thing to be hungry.”

Had they been living separately, Rosado suspects he and his friends would have tried to “tough it out” until the fall when their meal cards were replenished, but living together made it hard to ignore that they were all struggling.

“I felt like, ‘We are in college, why would we need the food pantry? That’s not really for us,’” Rosado said.

Fighting that misconception is a priority for each of the food pantry’s directors. Last year, Danielle Warren, a professor at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick, started studying the stigma associated with food insecurity and ways to combat that through messaging. By studying food pantry use and attitudes at Rutgers–Newark with a sample of students before and after releasing new messaging about food insecurity, Warren determined that the stigma associated with food insecurity on campus can be shifted. Additionally, the study revealed the positive experiences of those who chose to visit the food pantry.

“When compared with other students, those who visit our on-campus food pantry possess more favorable views toward stigmas around food insecurity. When asked about emotions associated with the food pantry, these students report more positive feelings (confidence, comfortableness, self-worth) and less negative feelings (embarrassment, shame) than students who do not use the pantry," she said.

Across the university, more students are getting the message and using the pantries.

Since Rutgers’ first pantry opened its doors in the fall of 2016 in New Brunswick, students have made more than 4,000 visits. Newark’s pantry, which opened in January 2017, recorded serving an average of 250 to 260 students a week this year, double the 125 students served there each week in 2018. After opening in fall 2017, Camden’s pantry has also seen an uptick in visits, from 900 during the spring and summer of 2018 to 1,800 during that time in 2019.

“Gifts of every size from our incredible community of Rutgers donors help expand educational opportunities for the next generation of leaders,” said Nevin Kessler, president of Rutgers University Foundation. “And this extends well beyond scholarships. On Giving Tuesday, our community comes together to support students in a very real way - literally filling plates and feeding minds. In doing so, we raise awareness that our mission to provide for the educational needs of the people of New Jersey doesn’t stop at the classroom door; we are here to improve the human condition.”

Still, pantry directors find they need to continue educating the public about why it’s important that students get fed.

“The quick answer is we want you to graduate,” Daley said. “If students are skipping meals or living off ramen noodles because they don’t have enough money for a healthy diet, they are more likely to have poorer performance in class and are at higher risk of not graduating. Students of color, first-generation students, working students, and students receiving financial aid are all at higher risk of food insecurity.”

Kerri Willson, director of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships at Rutgers–New Brunswick and founder of the Rutgers–New Brunswick Student Food Pantry, concurs. “If this basic need isn’t being met, we are going to assume it’s hard for you to do well in the classroom and maintain personal relationships,” she said.

While the food pantries help students meet an immediate need, they also serve as a hub where students can learn about other resources available to them. “We connect them with deans of students to connect them with other services, from financial counseling and psychological services to academic services,” said Willson. “The food pantry is just one way we are bridging that gap and connecting them with resources.”

Neuza “Maria” Serra, director of Student Health Services at Rutgers–Camden, says there are two benefits to having the Raptor Food Pantry located within health services: medical providers can identify students as potentially food insecure and send them down the hall to the pantry. She does the same, suggesting to students who use the food pantry that they see a physician on campus.

“One thing we noticed is that a lot of students who use the food pantry had never used health services before, so we gave coupons to encourage well visits,” Serra said. “A lot of these students have not had good, consistent health care throughout their lives. We see this as a way to connect them with medical care.”

Similarly, Rutgers–Newark students who visit the food pantry are made aware of the CARE Team (Campus Awareness Response and Education) and health and counseling services.

After benefiting from the Rutgers–New Brunswick Student Food Pantry, members of Sigma Lambda Beta have made it their mission to give back and let their peers know that this valuable resource is for any student in need, no exceptions. They routinely collect nonperishables for the food pantry and use donations to purchase items they know are in short supply.

Grassroots efforts like these help keep the New Brunswick pantry thriving, said Willson, adding that she’s been encouraged by the support students and alumni have given the pantry since it opened.

“Last year, a woman drove up with a trunkful of stuff for us and told me her daughter graduated from here 10 years ago,” Willson said. “One alumnus works for a pasta company nearby. We just call him up when we’re low, and he brings pasta. It’s heartening to see people give back.”

#GivingTuesday is a global giving movement that takes place the Tuesday after Thanksgiving each year. On December 3, the Rutgers community will come together to raise money for university food pantries to help students fill their plates while they feed their minds. Learn more.

Media Contact
Lisa Intrabartola