MSU food bank feeds hungry students

 Demand surged after the 2008 financial crisis plunged nation into a recession

By Matthew Miller

Lansing State Journal


EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Amanda Rice had taken a number and was waiting by the wall.

The six rows of green chairs in the Olin Health Center dining room at Michigan State University were mostly full. Two women chatted in Chinese while their toddlers played on the floor with an empty Powerade bottle. An MBA student fidgeted in his seat.

It was early December, the last distribution day for the MSU Student Food Bank before final exams, the holidays and winter break.

Like the others, Rice, an MSU junior, was there for a few staples: the canned soup and dried noodles laid out on tables at the back of the room, the bread and rolls handed out by two men in Christmas sweaters.

“Any help with food so we have money for something else is awesome,” Rice told the Lansing State Journal.

It was her third time at the food bank. Her roommate was working and couldn’t make it. Rice was getting food for both of them.

The MSU Student Food Bank marked its 20th anniversary in 2013. It was the brainchild of Bea Mott, who served as an administrative assistant to every MSU president from John Hannah through Cecil Mackey.

It was the first food bank on an American university campus to be run by students and for students, a resource that proved more necessary than some imagined at the beginning.

“I think there’s still a perception out there that if a student could afford to go to college, a student could afford to have food.” said Dennis Martell, the health education services coordinator at Olin who has been involved in the food bank since the beginning.

“We found out very quickly as students started to come in that, not only did they not have money for food, but some of them were signing up with no permanent address. They were homeless.”

Demand surged after the financial crisis that hit in the summer of 2008 and plunged the nation into recession. It served 6,000 students in the following year, as foreclosures and job losses drained parents’ pocketbooks.

The food bank serves about 4,000 students a year now — about one out of every 12 on MSU’s campus — distributing twice a month during the spring and fall semesters.

After all, not everyone who goes to college has money.

Ashley Tebbe never saw herself as bad off financially.

“I’m a college kid, so yeah, I’m kind of strapped for cash,” said the 22-year-old MSU senior, but she said she felt using the food bank would be “rude.”

Her circumstance finally convinced her.

“I was at the point where I was running out of food,” she said, “and I don’t like being hungry.”

Financial hardship isn’t always immediately visible on MSU’s campus, where a significant share of the student body has support from family, said Nate Tyge-Smith, the director of the food bank and a doctoral student in education. It’s there nonetheless.

The food bank’s clients are more likely to be graduate students than undergraduates. International students, who are often not permitted to work off campus due to visa limitations, are overrepresented. The bulk of its support, roughly $80,000 of its $100,000 annual budget, comes through donations.

“One of the things we’re trying to do to help relieve a stressor in the lives of those folks so they can focus on their academics, focus on their work and their family and not really have to stress out and worry about where the groceries are going to come from,” Tyge-Smith said.

For a while, Tyge-Smith received almost weekly queries from other campuses looking for advice on starting their own food banks. It occurred to him that a broader forum specifically addressing the concerns of campus food banks might make sense.

“When folks might go out to talk to their local food pantry that serves the local community, they’re dealing with a separate bunch of unique issues that might not relate to the campus experience,” he said.

The result is the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which the MSU food bank started in partnership with Oregon State University last year. It’s an online community for the time being, though the aspiration is to build it into something more substantial.

Temporary poverty is part of the folklore of college, of course. It’s there in the stories graduates tell about living on canned tuna or boxed macaroni or ramen noodles. But sometimes the need is more dire, Martell said, sometimes it is not so temporary.

“If you have enough money to buy Ramen noodles three times a day, at least you have some food,” he said. “Some of these people don’t even have that.”


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