National estimates suggest 20 percent of college students have experienced hunger; university launching its own survey this fall

Amoli Kulkami and Kerri Willson
Amoli Kulkami and Kerri Willson sort donated items in the Rutgers Student Food Pantry.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

'Food and shelter are two of your basic needs. If they are not being met there are other ramifications, Emotional distress and academic issues could arise. Could you imaging sitting in class hungry and trying to learn?'
– Kerri Willson, director of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships

There are more than 1.1 million people in New Jersey who do not know where their next meal will come from, according to 2014 data from Feeding America and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

College students are not immune to those statistics.

Food insecurity is a growing reality on college campuses nationwide, including Rutgers University, said Kerri Willson, director of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships, whose office launched the Rutgers Student Food Pantry this fall. Of the more than 20 food pantries dedicated to supporting the city’s food insecure population, the Rutgers Student Food Pantry is the first to serve specifically Rutgers-New Brunswick students.  

“People have an image of what they think a college student is,” Willson said. “Many college students today are working multiple jobs to pay their way while taking classes. A dining plan is probably the easiest thing for them to cut out or cut short on if they are paying for their tuition.”

Rising tuition combined with declining financial aid and lingering effects of the recession all increase students’ vulnerability to food insecurity, she said. National estimates suggest 20 percent of college students have experienced hunger, said Willson, a figure she believes to be low.

“I think there’s a shame associated with being hungry and asking for help,” she said.

Rutgers will be launching a study this fall to gauge food insecurity rates at Rutgers-New Brusnwick. The surveys are to be distributed in October by the Division of Student Affairs with support from faculty in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning Public Policy and other administrators throughout the university.

But Willson didn’t need a survey to know the need for a food pantry at Rutgers was there. She points to the Facebook group, Where the free food at? Rutgers, which in its description asks its nearly 4,000 members: “RU broke??? RU hungry??? Post events in this group about FREE FOOD being offered on Rutgers Campuses!!!”

What Willson did need was a room – and donations to fill it. That came in February when her department moved to a converted house at 39 Union Street. She hopes the food pantry’s homey location will help put students at ease. The actual pantry – a 12-foot-by-13-foot room stocked with nonperishables including rice, pasta, canned vegetables and toiletries – is tucked behind a small kitchen on the building’s first floor.  The pantry is open to all students – on campus, off campus, graduate students and commuters – and dovetails with the office’s three-fold mission: off-campus housing, service and spiritual exploration.

Prior to the Rutgers Student Food Pantry, students in need of food were referred to local New Brunswick services by their deans of students. Though the pantry will not turn students away, Willson urges students to continue registering with their deans of students, who are better equipped to help them cope with other issues that may stem from food insecurity.

Amoli Kulkami
Senior Amoli Kulkami, 21, one of two Rutgers Student Food Pantry interns stocks the shelves.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

 “Food and shelter are two of your basic needs. If they are not being met there are other ramifications,” Wilson said. “Emotional distress and academic issues could arise. Could you imagine sitting in class hungry and trying to learn?”

This winter Willson partnered with Rutgers Against Hunger (RAH), which supplied the pantry’s first food donation and connected them with other resources. The Sigma Pi fraternity took on the food pantry as its Altruistic Campus Experience (ACE) project this spring, purchasing and installing shelving, picking up the first RAH donation and stocking the pantry. Over the summer, the pantry collected 3,100 pounds of food through the support of several campus organizations, including the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers and New Student Orientation, which asked 8,000 incoming freshmen to bring nonperishable items to orientation. The donations allowed the pantry to feed 30 students this summer before it officially opened.

Willson continues to receive offers of assistance as news of the food pantry spreads. One of those calls came from Krista Klein, assistant dean of student affairs for Rutgers-New Brunswick Honors College, who is organizing a First Fridays monthly food drive to benefit the pantry.  Starting in October, Honors College students will be asked to donate at least one food item on the first Friday of each month and reflect on the topic of food insecurity during a discussion led by one of the two Rutgers Student Food Pantry interns. Participation counts toward the Honors College student requirement of 30 hours of community service through the HC Serves program.

"Service, which is central to the Honors College mission, can take many forms," said Klein, "from volunteering to learning and reflecting on their experiences. The hope is that students will be able to connect this to their larger college experience and help raise awareness for the issue of food insecurity.”

When Honors College students sit down for those informal discussions, they’ll meet Amoli Kulkami, one of two Rutgers Student Food Pantry interns. The Rutgers senior, 21, majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry with minors in Spanish and public health, knew that food insecurity was a major issue in New Brunswick but didn’t realize its prevalence on campus until her exposure to it last year as a “Give Where You Live” Intern with Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships.

When she learned about the initiative to start a food pantry for Rutgers students, Kulkami knew it was something she wanted to be closely involved with.

“It is humbling and gratifying to know that our work at the food pantry is helping my peers,” she said.  “College should be a time to learn and gain new experiences, but that can be extremely difficult when students may not have access to affordable, healthy food.”  

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