UWM Students Open Pantry to Combat Food Insecurity on Campus

Feb 20, 2018

Along with grades and debt, food is something many college students worry about.

It’s a story we brought you last year, when national data named Wisconsin as one of the states where college kids struggled most with food insecurity.

A recent survey at UW-Milwaukee found that nearly half of students say they’ve experienced a time when they didn’t have enough food.

So, students have taken matters into their own hands, opening the school’s first official Food Center and Pantry on the third floor of UWM’s student union.

Basic pantry staples like peanut butter and pasta line the shelves in UWM's new food center.
Credit Rachel Morello

The pantry officially opened January 29th, following a campus-wide survey administered about a year ago by UWM Restaurant Operations and the UWM Student Association (student government). The goal: to gauge levels of food insecurity on campus – which ranges anywhere from eating smaller portions to skipping meals altogether because of an inability to pay for food.

About 1900 students and 300 faculty and staff sent in answers – a fairly high response rate for a campus survey.

Question number one read: “Has there ever been a time when you did not have enough food for yourself?”

Just under 50 percent of students surveyed responded, “yes.”

Credit UWM Student Association

UWM senior Dakota Crowell heads the initiative -- he’s a leader within the Student Association, UWM’s student government. He says it didn’t surprise him that some of his classmates struggled finding enough food – but seeing the exact numbers was a bit staggering.

“I had met students or have known friends who have experienced this…but I didn’t realize the percentage of that [issue] would have been so high,” Crowell says.

The survey displayed a clear need for solutions around food insecurity -- so, Crowell and his colleagues did their research. Recommendations they brought to the table included:

  • Increasing campus education around food insecurity
  • Expanding partnerships with local agencies
  • Encouraging and supporting more campus food recovery efforts
  • Expanding campus food options
  • Establishing an on-campus food pantry

After his election to Student Association, Crowell took the pantry on as his first project “in office.” Finding a space was relatively easy; renovation on the third floor of UWM’s student union meant a vacant space formerly occupied by Restaurant Operations opened up. The room offers a service counter, some kitchen prep space, plenty of seating and a walk-in pantry for food storage.

Over the past six months, community members have donated more than two-thousand pounds of food and other items to the pantry – including “student staples” like ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, as well as personal toiletries, laundry detergent and diapers for students who might be parenting alongside classes.

"We can't really expect someone to be passing their classes if they are struggling to find where their next meal is going to come from."

Crowell says he’s trying to be sensitive in the ways he markets the pantry. He’s aware there may be different stigmas or barriers associated with receiving assistance.

That might mean eventually renaming “the UWM Student Food Center and Pantry,” or lining up more programming around food within the space, to bring students in for multiple reasons.

For now, the UWM Student Food Center and Pantry is open every fourth Monday from 9a.m.-1:30p.m., as well as every fourth Thursday from 5-9p.m. In addition, designated faculty and staff in the Dean of Students office, the LGBT Resource Center, the Inclusive Excellence Center and UWM Student Association have key access, to accommodate students who can’t come to the pantry during regular open hours.

“Securing these basic needs for students is quintessential to their academic success,” Crowell explains. “We can’t really expect someone to be passing their classes if they know maybe they haven’t eaten for the last day, or are struggling to find where their next meal is going to come from.”