Student association plans food pantry
by Kate Jungers
The cost of higher education weighs heavily on many college students as tuition rates, textbook fees and housing expenses increase significantly every year. For the students that choose to take on the hefty burden of student debt, many find it difficult to take care of basic needs like food, housing and hygiene. In attempts to make the University of Wisconsin-Madison an institution that accommodates students that struggle with poverty, hunger and homelessness, the Associated Students of Madison plans to open the campus’ first student food pantry in February of 2016.
The possibility that a student could be homeless and attend UW-Madison was virtually unheard of until last year, when Brooke Evans began to anonymously write op-eds in campus and local Madison newspapers urging UW administrators to create policies that would assist students that struggle to eat or find a safe place to sleep at night.
In collaboration with Evans’ pleas for help and research studies from UW-Madison’s HOPE lab that addressed the amount of college students across the nation that experience food insecurity, the Associated Students of Madison’s former chair and vice chair, Genevieve Carter and Derek Field, proposed the concept of a food pantry specifically for UW-Madison students, according to Kyla Kaplan, the current vice chair of ASM.
The food pantry was proposed to ASM’s student council in 2014 in order to include food pantry expenses in the budget. The budget determines the cost of student segregated fees. According to Kaplan, the decision to include funding for a food pantry was not unanimous.
Although Evans had been speaking out about student homelessness and food insecurity anonymously for months, she revealed herself for the first time at a student council meeting prior to budget voting in order to testify as a student that is homeless and hungry, and to call attention to the fact that she is not alone.
“It’s hard to feel bad about something you’ve never seen,” said Evans. “I needed to identify myself to put a face to the story, and to prove that being in poverty is not a product of making poor decisions, which is a very real stigma,” she noted.
Some council members questioned whether there was really a need for a student food pantry as there are many others in Dane County.
Evans noted that although there are food pantries in Madison, they are often inaccessible to students as they are only open during business hours when students are in class, and normally have extremely long lines and require transportation. Taking the time to go to a food pantry off campus is almost impossible for many of these students who often work multiple jobs.
After Evans gave her testimony, student council voted to allocate $22,000 for a food pantry entitled the “Open Seat,” which would be located in the Student Activity Center, and would be open for business in 2016.
Although funding for the Open Seat has already passed, leaders in ASM are still working out some concerns and logistics the administration has regarding the food pantry, specifically with Dean of Students Lori Berquam.
According to Angelito Tenorio, a member of student council and chair of the University Affairs Committee, Berquam was concerned about the confidentiality of students that may want to use the food pantry. She believed that some students may be hesitant to use it out of fear of embarrassment and judgement by their peers.
In order to combat these concerns, Tenorio noted that the process of using the Open Seat will be non-invasive. There will not be a major screening process, and no financial statements or history will be required for a student to use the food pantry in order to allow students more privacy.
“This is a food pantry that is particularly for students, so it’s more of a comfortable, safe space for these students to come in, rather than being sent out into the community,” Tenorio said. “This is a place students know and are comfortable with already.”
Dean Berquam also expressed concerns about the nutritional impacts of students using the Open Seat, as all products must be non-perishable due to health and safety reasons.
Kaplan and Tenorio who both play a large role in the Open Seat, hope to serve hot food once the food pantry has become more established, but for now hope to monitor the food supply to ensure that there are healthy options rather than solely items like ramen or macaroni and cheese.
“UW-Madison has never had anything like this before,” said Tenorio. “We have a lot to learn and we are hoping to get feedback from what works and what doesn’t so we know what to improve for the future.”
Because the budget for the Open Seat is funded by segregated fees, no food can be bought with the funds, as segregated fees can never be used to purchase food for any reason. This means that the Open Seat relies solely on donations. The $22,000 of funding will instead be used to staff the food pantry, as well as cover maintenance and initial advertising costs, according to Kaplan.
In order to collect the non-perishable goods, there will be donation bins placed in main locations on campus like Bascom, Sellery, Witte, the SAC and other academic buildings. Open Seat will also be organizing a competition between all interested registered student organizations on campus to collect and donate the most food items. The top two winners of the competition will receive a prime, front location at the student organization fair or a free campus-wide email.
“If every student on campus donated one item, at the cost of a dollar or two, we would be set,” Kaplan said. “We are hoping that this is an issue that students will feel strongly about, and so far I believe that’s the case.”
ASM, Evans and the HOPE lab are working in collaboration to prepare the food pantry for its opening in February of next year, with high hopes that the Open Seat will significantly improve the lives of students at UW-Madison.