Many students battle between trying to do their best in college and doing their best to support themselves. While many joke about college students only eating Top Ramen because they're always broke, food insecurity is an actual problem facing students-—and it's not a joke.
College is expensive, and with tuition, books and fees to worry about food isn't always a student's first priority, leaving many students food insecure.
"Food insecurity is a hard issue to talk about because people assume that just because you have enough money to attend college, you have enough money to get food," says Molly Hansen a UA communications junior who serves as outreach coordinator for the UA Campus Pantry. "This is not always the case as many students are on scholarship or are supporting themselves and family members."
Last academic year, the UA Campus Pantry distributed about 1,800 pounds of food to students and staff in need, according to Hansen. The UA Campus Pantry, created in 2012, serves as the food bank for students and staff with the purpose of reducing food insecurity on campus.
According to Feeding America, one of the country's largest emergency food assistance networks, one out of their every 10 adult clients using the service is going to school, including two million who attend school full-time. Roughly 50 percent of all those students have had to choose between college expenses and buying food.
"Food insecurity is not knowing where your next meal is coming from or running out of food and not being able to buy more," Hansen says. "It is not always a constant thing—for example, college students might experience food insecurity after paying tuition, rent, etc. and not having enough leftover for food."
Hansen says it's important to recognize food insecurity on campus because it's extremely difficult to study, work and be a normal student when experiencing insecurity.
The pantry, accessible to anyone with a Cat Card, receives donations from the student union, local businesses and clubs and organizations on campus. Since moving to their new location in the basement of the Student Union Memorial Center, the pantry now offers more fresh fruit and milk in addition to a variety of non-perishable foods and even a limited amount of toiletries and cleaning supplies.
Hansen says while in the past there hasn't been any formalized study at UA to analyze food insecurity on campus, it's generally suggested that 50 percent of all college students are food insecure at some point in their college career.
"I believe food insecurity is a prominent issue on college campuses based on the rise of campus pantries across the nation," says Michelle Sun, executive director of the UA Campus Pantry. "When we first started our pantry in 2012, we were aware of approximately 50 other campus pantries in existence. That number has grown to over 300 pantries and I regularly receive correspondence from other institutions that are looking to start one."
Sun said that, from her experiences at the UA, food insecurity is prominent on campus.
"We wouldn't have a constant population of students and staff using our pantry if there wasn't a need," Sun says. "I also see new faces come to use our services at every distribution. From the relationships I've built with our participants and the numbers I see for our operation, I know that it is an issue that people in our community struggle with on a regular basis."
Sun says while their services are open for both students and staff members at the UA, only around 10 percent of their participants are staff.
Hansen says typically, seniors and graduate students have a higher rate of food insecurity due to freshmen being on meal plans and living on campus.
"I think that there's definitely a real issue," says Zachary Brooks, the Graduate and Professional Student Council president. "I've had friends who are grad students, who aren't really eating much at all for a few weeks because they had some fees to pay and are waiting for their next check, or just like life, emergency expenditures came up."
Brooks says few people actually talk about food insecurity because they are afraid to talk about their struggles for fear of someone finding out.
"We typically think of grad students as pretty smart people who have their shit together and are smart, hardworking," says Brooks. "A lot of graduate assistants who teach undergraduate courses, really have poverty wages, which makes it easy to see why someone is food insecure."
Brooks said the university is like a food desert because there aren't any grocery stores within a few miles to buy fresh and inexpensive food, because CVS and Umart don't qualify and the closest grocery store is on Broadway and Campbell.
GPSC currently offers a variety of resources online for students who don't have money to buy food, including links on their website which direct them to a variety of options.
While it isn't easy to speak about not having enough money for food, the problem is apparent on college campuses across the nation and even at the UA, a problem Brooks says could be solved.
"The hardest thing about food insecurity is the lack of sharing by people who do have it because of the shame they attach to themselves when they're food insecure," Brooks says. "I think it's like anything in life and other societal problems like these, it's solvable and helpful if you're able to lift the stigma off."
There's a fine line to making sure the UA Campus Pantry and food insecurity are known about and promoting the people who use the service and may not feel comfortable with everyone knowing.
"Unfortunately there is a perceived stigma in our society about food insecurity and potentially using food banks or other services around this issue," Sun says. "We constantly work with this dynamic at our pantry to try and overcome that stigma so people feel comfortable coming to us. We do this by trying to make the pantry as welcoming as possible and we have always been an anonymous service."
Hansen says in order to make people feel more comfortable and to provide a welcoming environment to use the pantry, they don't have very many people at the actual distributions. Hansen added that, since moving to the basement of the student union, they have even more of a private space for students and staff to anonymously come by and pick up items.
Hansen said they are always trying to raise more awareness about the pantry and the services it offers to reduce food insecurity on campus.
"I always think there can be more awareness about food insecurity," Sun says. "Whether it's educating people that food insecurity exists on a college campus or informing more people who need the pantry, I always feel like we can do more. I think more awareness is possible through educational efforts across campus and making sure key people who interact with students or staff in need know about our services."
Brooks says that, while it will take some courageous people talking about food insecurity to raise awareness and lift the veil of embarrassment, it will also take more people in positions of power acknowledging the issue to create an emotional, safe space where students can say, "I'm food insecure and that's okay."