RICHMOND, Va. – Remembering his days as a college student, Terrence Walker admits he had to cut some corners in order to get his education. The university official, who was a first generation college student himself, said he was inspired to help students facing food shortages and hunger after “reflecting back on my own experiences and the challenges I had to manage my finances and to pay for my education.”
As an administrative assistant for University Counseling Services on the MCV campus at VCU, Walker realized that student hunger is still a prevalent issue today after hearing stories of students coming to class hungry and looking for help, either through the counseling services or the VCU Wellness Resource Center.
“Students go hungry in many cases because of limited resources, and one of the first things that’s easy to cut from a budget is food,” Walker said. He decided to approach the faith community at VCU about starting a food pantry exclusively for college students.
Currently, the Catholic Campus Ministry, the Baptist Campus Ministry, the Muslim Student Association and the Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church are working to start the pantry. According to Walker, it will be housed in the building of the Baptist Campus Ministry and will open some time in the coming spring semester.
“We’re hoping to sort of start with a place where students can go to meet short-term food needs, but also long-term to set students up in a way that they’re able to sustain themselves without having dependency on the pantry,” Walker said. In addition to providing students with a “care package” of staple food items, Walker also wants to enlist the help of a dietician and provide students with financial counseling so they know how to shop for food on a budget.
VCU currently offers its students dining plans through VCU Dining Services. Freshmen who live on campus are required to purchase a dining plan from the university, which ranges from $1,664 to $2,020. Those who do not live on campus are eligible to participate in another plan, which ranges from over $200 to $2,020.
Students who use all of their dining options before the semester ends can buy smaller dining plans to finish out the semester. Tamara Highsmith, manager of sales and services for the VCU Dining Services, said there are around 245 students every semester who purchase additional plans, because they have used up their original plan.
Despite the availability of dining plans, a recent poll on the internal VCU online portal showed a majority of VCU students have gone hungry because they didn’t have the means to purchase food. Out of 3,262 respondents, 57 percent said that they had gone without food because of a lack money while at VCU. Another 15 percent said that they were not affected by hunger, but that they know others who are. No reliable data has been collected on hunger at VCU at this point, but Walker said the groups will be able to gather more information once the pantry opens.
Grant Mansfield, a VCU senior and the student leader for VCU Campus Ministries, said he has witnessed hunger among his fellow classmates due to financial problems.
“When we got the email from Terrence, the first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘Why didn’t I think about this in the first place?’” Mansfield said. “It’s a need that I’ve seen in my friends and with just people around me. So it’s been something that I’ve seen occur, and I’m glad that the university is finally stepping up and taking the initiative and saying, ‘Okay, we need to do something about this.’”
Katie Vatalaro Hill, assistant director of the Wellness Resource Center, said that hunger is a rising problem among college students that many don’t know about. Hill said college students are often perceived as a “privileged population.”
“In some cases, that’s true, but in other cases they may not have money for food,” Hill added.
In celebration of Food Day next week, the Wellness Resource Center will host a canned food drive with all the donations going to the food pantry for college students. “Food is a basic right, in my mind, and you can’t do well in school if you’re not eating consistently. Making sure that all of our students have access to food is important for academic success,” said Hill.
Greg Deekens, the student leader for stewardship at Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, would like to have “a revolving door of food and students who find themselves in that dire need.”
“You hear all the time about food pantries for the homeless and people like that, but not necessarily for college students. We have expenses for tuition and books and sometimes food goes by the wayside,” Deekens said.
Liz Swilley, Service Chair for the Catholic Campus Ministry, has helped with organizing the food pantry. Swilley said that before she was approached about starting the pantry, she didn’t realize hunger among students was a problem. “This is a real issue that is easily overlooked and is present all around us,” Swilley said.
Overall, Swilley said she wants all students to feel comfortable when seeking help with food and using the pantry.
“It’s not about being a certain religion and having those resources because you belong to one of these three main facets. It’s because you’re hungry, and we’re part of your community, and we want to help our community,” Swilley said.