Food insecurity is not uncommon on the University of Kansas’ campus, though some feel many students know little about it, students say.
From strict budgeting, working multiple jobs to affording groceries and supplementing with items from food pantries, KU students facing food insecurity often stretch themselves to afford food, especially during the pandemic.
“I feel like food insecurity is actually a lot more common than people think it is,” said a KU graduate student from California who requested anonymity to speak more freely about her situation. “There is a stereotype of who it is. I think people have this image that it is only people who are really poor or on food stamps, but that’s not really accurate because there are a lot of people at KU that I know that struggle with it.”
The student said that during summer and winter break, as well as days off during the semester, were and still are the most difficult times financially.
“There were times when I didn’t have enough money to feed myself,” the graduate student said. “During some semesters I really struggled because all of my money from working would then go to tuition and other expenses.”
Shantanice Thomas, a fourth-year speech, language and hearing student at KU from Kansas City, Kansas, dealt with food insecurity particularly at the start of her college career, she said. Thomas lost her job in April 2019 because the company she worked for went bankrupt. After that, she faced difficulties finding another job, so she lived off her savings, which was not much, she said.
“I didn’t have a lot of savings, and so I kind of had to take my lunch and plan ahead because I couldn’t afford to buy something every time I was here [on campus],” Thomas said. “I couldn’t really take food from home because we didn’t have much, so without the Campus Cupboard it would have been really hard for me.”
In fall 2018, as a joint effort with KU’s Student Senate, the KU Center for Community Outreach and former graduate student Ike Uri, the Campus Cupboard was founded, says Sara Chavez, a case manager for KU and Campus Cupboard overseer.
The study conducted by Uri in 2017 found that many KU students were food insecure, but there was a low response rate to his survey, according to the Food for Jayhawks website. In spring 2018, Dr. Stacey Swearingen White, faculty member in urban planning and faculty fellow in student affairs, conducted a similar survey in hopes of getting more responses.
Food insecurity does not only include students who are starving or skip meals, according to the Food for Jayhawks website. Food insecure students also include those who have to eat less desirable foods with reduced quality of food or variety.
The Campus Cupboard
Chavez said the study highlighted that many students needed assistance. Today about 90% of the food at the Cupboard is supplied by Just Food food bank, she said.
“Just Food has that supermarket feel whereas with the Campus Cupboard we try and make it like a convenience store, where you can come in with no stigma attached to shopping,” Chavez said. “Individuals take what they need.”
The pantry serves KU students, staff and affiliates and a student ID is all that is needed to receive items from the cupboard, she said. Shoppers take what they need in accordance with the point system, which helps guide them through the cupboard.
“When an individual comes in, we welcome them and if they’re a first-time shopper we explain how the points system works,” Chavez said. “If they need help selecting items or anything like that, we can guide them.”
Each item is worth a certain number of points and shoppers are allotted 15 points a maximum of two times per week, according to the Campus Cupboard website. Personal care, hygiene and kitchen items are not worth any points, but shoppers are limited to three of these items. The Campus Cupboard does not have a limit on produce, but shoppers are reminded to be mindful of others in what they take.
Myintzu Aye, a graduate student in the school of social welfare from Myanmar, helps supervise the Campus Cupboard and monitors what items are in high demand.
“When we go on the ‘food runs’ [to Just Food] we have to be mindful of what people need,” Aye said. “So, for example, some of the items run out easily like milk or cheese so we are mindful when we go for our next run that those things are collected.”
Aye also helps sensitize volunteers to the cupboard environment to ensure the students’ dignity is respected, she said.
“My role is to not only fulfill my practicum but to also create the Campus Cupboard into a welcoming area for the students,” Aye said.
The graduate student from California said that she has used resources like the Campus Cupboard when her paycheck couldn’t cover her grocery bill. She also said she saves money on food by shopping at discount stores like Checkers, buying food in bulk, on sale or about to expire, visiting food pantries in Lawrence or eating meals with friends whose parents live in the area.
“People take it for granted that they can open their fridge or cabinet and have food in there,” she said. “They don’t realize how much of a difference that it makes.”
Though Thomas does not deal with food insecurity as often as she used to because of her new job’s higher pay, she still faces the mental strain that food insecurity causes, she said.
“On your own, it can be hard to kind of keep yourself afloat so definitely having the cupboard here helps,” Thomas said. “It’s okay to ask for help. If you are starving, it’s going to be hard to focus on your studies so we [the cupboard] can help you out.”
Thomas now works for the Campus Cupboard, along with her other job, to help students like her dealing with the wide spectrum of food insecurity.
“I have an apartment, I have a car and everything and I pay for all of that,” Thomas said. “It’s not that I’m lazy -- I have two jobs -- but I just need help sometimes to supplement what I don’t have sometimes.”
Other help available
During the 2020-2021 academic year KU’s Student Senate reached out to KU Dining to explore the idea of allowing students to donate their remaining dining dollars at the end of each semester, said Jim Schilling, director of KU Dining Services.
“With that larger conversation around food insecurity, we entered in just one more option as help for students,” Schilling said. “It was really intentional in how we did this to make sure that a student with a KU ID card could be in line with every other student that has money on their card, and you wouldn’t have any idea which one of them might be food insecure.”
If students need food assistance, they can reach out to Food for Jayhawks and complete an application with Student Affairs, Schilling says. Once that is complete, a 425 dining plan can be applied to a student’s account.
Through the programs that KU provides, the goal is to support Jayhawks in any way possible because food insecurity can affect many areas of a student’s life, Chavez said.
“We are trying to support the whole student, not just food but also other resources, because a student’s success depends on whether their basic needs are met,” Chavez said.