Editor’s Note: Report for  America, an initiative of TheGroundTruth Project, is a national nonprofit that places reporters in local newsrooms throughout  the country and requires their  corps members to complete a service project, where they work as  journalism students. This series was done as an internship with  corps member Sarah Spicer, who covers climate change at The Wichita Eagle. Spicer served as editor and provided guidance to  the project, but the work is that of the students.

More than one-third of students in the U.S. experience food insecurity each year, and for many students and members of the community in college towns throughout Kansas, campus food banks may offer the only reliable source of food assistance. 

The Still Hungry and Homeless in College study found that “36% of university students experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days,” and in a late 2017 study indicated that 30,000 college students in the U.S. struggled with food insecurity. 

As the world passes the one year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, these food pantries are struggling to feed record numbers, with fewer resources and donations.

These findings are part of a five months long investigation into the structure of 18 Midwest universities, located in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, by five ESU journalism students as an internship as part of a Report for America service project.  Open records were filed in all five states for the 18 universities' food service contracts and all but one university, Oklahoma State University, fulfilled those requests, although Colorado School of Mines did not respond soon enough for this report. 

Each of the seven Kansas schools focused on faces food insecurity on their campuses, and within their broader communities as well, with at least 12% of each of the counties dealing with food insecurity, according to the 2018 Feeding America report.

In Lyon County, which is home to Emporia State, nearly 13% of the county population have dealt with food insecurity. The highest rate of food insecurity goes to Pittsburg State University in Crawford County in southeast Kansas, which is at 16%.

Even before the pandemic swept the nation, some Midwest universities were the only places for those in need to get food. Seven of the 18 surveyed universities were in officially designated food deserts, according to the USDA.

A majority of the universities rely heavily on the help of a handful of undergraduate college students to address these issues, such as providing food access to those in need and supplying healthy, alternative foods for those students whose diets require it. 

But the gap in experiences is huge, as larger, more affluent universities surveyed, like Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, are able to employ registered dieticians. 

Northwest Missouri State University and the University of Central Missouri have dietetic organizations run by students that also offer advice to address these needs.

An Unbalanced Problem

One of the key ways colleges provide food for students and their communities is through maintaining food pantries. 

Of the 18 schools surveyed throughout Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, the campus food banks reported at the main populations they served tended to be women, international students and students of color. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture in 2019, 13% of men and women, 19% of Black people and 16% of the Hispanic population experienced food insecurity.

At ESU, students have full access to the on-campus pantry, Corky’s Cupboard. Since opening in the Fall 2014, Corky’s Cupboard has provided students with over 65,000 services and served over 1,000 meals, according to the ESU website.

Of the 17 other schools researched, nearly all of them maintain a food pantry with resources for students battling food insecurity. The lone exception is the Colorado School of Mines, where their food pantry is operated by the students who are seeking to establish it as a university facility according to Estelle Cronmiler, president of “Fighting Hunger at Mines.”

This can be seen more clearly at the Colorado School of Mines, which of all the schools surveyed, kept the most meticulous records on who utilized their services. According to a survey the club conducted two years ago, nearly eleven percent of the population on campus used their services, and a majority of them were Native Americans from Colorado and international students.

“There are certain barriers that international students face that aren't necessarily as predominant in native Colorado populations that go to the school,” said Estelle Cronmiller, a student and president of the club “Fighting Hunger at Mines.” “We’ve been told by multiple people that we are the organization on campus that affects their personal life the most.” 

Struggles of Campus Food Pantries

Even in smaller areas, schools are serving a substantially larger number of students than larger schools. For example, Hays has a reported population of nearly 21,000 and the student population reaches nearly 13,000. In this small rural community, students account for over half the people.

“Since last semester, we have served at least 3,000 people,” said Peter Tramel, co-chair of the Tiger Food Exchange Program at Fort Hays. “We have seen maybe a 50% increase in usage of our services this year...In a way, it’s too bad that people are in need of our services, but it is certainly no sign fewer people will need it in the long run. As far as those who work for us, those kinds of people go on to do helpful things elsewhere.”

All of the larger universities surveyed said they have generally seen an increase of donations and available funding. However, the small universities are the ones that experienced challenges providing food. Three of the 18 universities we surveyed were small size and the battle for both social and financial help in breaking down the barriers to food access.

For example, Missouri Western State University began requiring their Greek Life students to donate supplies or volunteer time to help the food banks.

“We have a fair amount of items that we usually run out of,” said Abigail Rush, assistant dean of students at Missouri Western. “We will put it out in the Griffin Post, which is an email we send out at the beginning of the week, and we will have a call for donations.”

At ESU, food and housing insecurity throughout Emporia was already a growing concern, according to the Basic Needs Coalition. The organization is chaired by Blythe Eddy who is the Director-Student Activities and Community Service and Jasmine Linabary an Assistant Professor of the Communication and Theatre Department.

“Having so many different departments and offices involved and made aware of resources helps us spread the word to all corners of campus,” said Linabary. 

Eddy and Linabary stated in ESU insider from the presidents office that, “Defining the problem space can be a point of contention as we navigate questions from different people around what ‘counts’ as being basic needs insecure and what needs are ‘legitimate.’"

Pandemic Complications

The current pandemic has resulted in a growing number of students and faculty in need of help and providing food for them has become a challenge.

For example, Washburn University said the pandemic severely limited their ability to raise donations, while simultaneously increasing need. Both the Colorado School of Mines and ESU reported that the problem was worse when trying to supply students with specialty diets, and staff at the University of Central Missouri said they need to hire more help as the pressure on their staff increased.

At a time that social distancing and schooling from home has limited the ability of campus food banks to accept and drive donation numbers, economic problems have driven demand through the roof. 

Most recently, Corky’s Cupboard was unable to run it's annual ‘Can the Bods’ food drive, a Homecoming event with Washburn University that usually accounts for a majority of the pantry’s donations each year. Instead, ESU organized ‘Can COVID,’ which was sponsored by Associated Student Government. The event ended up raising $3,895, which will be used to support Corky’s Cupboard.

In 2018, the drive raised 50,891 cans for ESU’s food bank, while Washburn’s drive raised 34,214 cans.

At Colorado School of Mines, the students only recently formed their official food pantry in the Fall of 2020. In the midst of the pandemic, their program has been hit hard. They have had to limit hours to one day a week because they can’t keep food on the shelves.

“We only stock the fridge every Thursday, and usually the food will be gone by Monday or Tuesday,” Cronmiller said. “Normally we would stock the fridge Monday, Wednesday and Friday but we just have less food coming in because of the pandemic, because there is such great need.”

At ESU, Corky’s Cupboard decided to provide free meals during the Spring 2021 semester to international students who did not purchase a meal plan and are experiencing food insecurity, but there is a limited number of free meals. 

Last semester, Corky’s Cupboard also offered students who used the pantry a declining dollar balance to be used in all food stations at ESU, like Starbucks, The Nest which is ESU cafeteria and Hornet Express that is a fast food station.

Supplying food to everyone 

While some food banks have the ability to provide a variety of food, 10 university pantries surveyed said they’ve struggled to maintain adequate options for those with dietary needs.

“While we do have some options, we haven’t yet fully implemented a section just for vegetarian food or gluten free food, however, they are kind of in the mix,” said Matthew Smoker, junior at Washburn University and manager of their food pantry. 

Fort Hays is trying to offer fresh food by having students engage in growing it themselves. Fort Hays is continuing to develop its community garden where students can work to maintain small crops that they can use in a therapeutic exercise that combines gardening with mental welfare.

“We grow a pretty good variety,” said Tramel, co-chair of the Victor E. Garden at Fort Hays State. “We just ordered seeds for this year and we ordered tomatoes, pears, geens, lettuce, kale, snow peas, green beans and in the summer we do other things like corn, things like that, but we especially focus on the Spring and the Fall crops because that is when we have more clients.” 

Without a dietary specialist, ESU’s campus community must rely on assistance from programs like the EAT initiative or Corky’s Cupboard to supplement their university meal plans when adequate alternatives are not available.

For other schools like Oklahoma State University where dining programs have long been self-operated and student oriented, dieterty accommodations have been an area of constant focus.

“To be a self-op school, (it offers) a lot of flexibility to participate in those pilot programs,” said Vedda Hsu, dining director at Oklahoma State University. “We started the sustainability committee on campus...We also have the Farm Fresh program and we are one of the 15 universities in the United States that participates.”

As a self-operated university, this allows Oklahoma State to spend money they normally would on maintaining contracts with vendors on providing more meal options on campus, according to Hsu. 

“You provide money to those outsourced entities, Aramark, Chartwells, whatever, you know you’re funding them,” said Tracie Brown, senior director of student union operations at Oklahoma State. “You’re funding their corporate world...They’re making money off of you.”

By being the largest employer of student employees on campus, Brown said they are able to get a lot of direct feedback from those who eat on campus as they help direct the dining advisory groups on campus.

“We have a registered dietician, she's a nutritionist that will meet with any student one on one to help them,” Brown said. “It is very, very hands on and I just can't see that happening in an outsourced environment.”

Contributing to this report were interns Katie Donnelly, Isabella Eppens and Margaret Mellott

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