Three years ago, during the three-week winter break, a Western Michigan University student found himself without food. Dining halls at Western Michigan University close over the break, and during that period students who rely on university dining for food and do not leave for the holidays have to find food elsewhere.
The student had signed up for a meal plan for spring, but that didn’t start until university re-opened in two weeks. His money was tight, the days were getting long and he was getting more and more hungry.
He wandered into the Residence Life office and told Karen Lamons, the coordinator of housing assignments, “I just really need something to eat.”
Lamons packed up whatever food had been left in the office’s kitchenette and handed it over to the student. But that hungry student and his need propelled her, along with Shari Glaser, WMU director of family engagement, and Julia Kuntz, engagement manager for WMU Development and Alumni Relations, to create the Invisible Need Project to serve students’ unmet needs and create a culture of giving on campus.
The Invisible Need Project, created in 2014, encompasses a food pantry, an emergency fund to help students in need, and a health emergency fund for medical assistance. The food pantry serves students’ short-term needs for food, while the Student Emergency Relief Fund helps them pay for items they need in order to progress toward graduation. The Staufer Health Emergency Fund, which had already been in existence for a decade and helps students who cannot pay for medical expenses at Sindecuse Health Center, became part of the Invisible Need Project as well.
“We (wanted to) create something that helped students in their emergency needs,” says Glaser, who now chairs the Invisible Need Project. “Something comes up — you’re going to pay for your textbooks and, all of a sudden, your car needs new tires. You have to have the car or you can’t get to school.”
The project is completely funded by donations from students, faculty, alumni, parents and the community.
That hungry student’s request to Lamons in 2013 was not an isolated incident. In the first two years since the food pantry began, there have been 1,362 visits from 369 students. More than 25,000 pounds of food have been provided from donations to the pantry.
Students’ ‘safety net’
The food pantry is the safety net some students need to stay in school.
J. Gabriel Ware, 27, now a WMU graduate student, says he used the pantry every two weeks, which is the allowable limit, throughout his first semester as an undergraduate, in 2014. The cost of tuition, rent and books and a lack of financial support from family led him straight to the food pantry.
“There are some people who have to scratch and claw just to get to college, so it really helps them stay there, knowing there’s a food pantry — that there is somewhere they could go every two weeks to get food,” Ware says.
While some students use the pantry regularly, a majority of pantry users average only one or two visits per year, Lamons says. “So that tells us that it’s a safety net,” she says. “It’s for those things that can happen to anyone in life and they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t have anything to eat right now.’”
Open to all students
Student volunteers run the pantry, which is housed in the Faunce Student Services building on campus. Volunteer Stephanie Platts, a film, video and media studies major, recently spent a winter day stocking the pantry’s shelves and helping first-time users figure out the process.
“You can come in and get what you need, and if you get paid next week, it’s no big deal,” Platts says. ‘It’s really convenient for students ’cause it’s on campus. You don’t have to go too far.”
The shelves that line the pantry’s small but brightly lit room are stocked with peanut butter, soup, beans, cereal, macaroni and cheese, and more. The pantry recently purchased a freezer to be able to store frozen vegetables and healthy foods so students can have more nutritionally balanced meals.
Students don’t have to apply or meet specific qualifications to use the pantry, but they must be enrolled in classes at WMU. Pantry users can fill a medium-sized grocery bag with whatever is in the pantry once every two weeks.
The pantry has donation spots at 30 campus locations, including the Battle Creek aviation campus and the Parkview engineering campus, and organizers say the pantry has been embraced by WMU staff and students, with various student groups holding food drives and donation days.
In 2015, all of the university’s Greek chapters designated the Invisible Need Project as one of their charities for Greek Week. Their efforts generated two tons of food for the pantry and $2,000 for the Student Emergency Relief Fund.
WMU Dining Services has also donated money for the purchase of healthy, fresh foods for the pantry and emergency meal tickets when students need a hot meal right away. The project also got WMU President John Dunn’s attention, leading him to donate $1,000.
The program, Glaser says, has helped WMU create a “culture of giving.”
Help in emergencies
Another component of the Invisible Need Project is the Student Emergency Relief Fund. Students may apply for aid from the fund after all other financial aid resources are exhausted. Lamons says among the items that have been funded are a pair of glasses, a car repair and an energy bill.
The fund is supported through donations and through the sale of annual T-shirts such as 2016’s shirt displaying “Good as Gold” in bold letters across the chest. Sales of the shirts, which can be purchased for $10 each in the WMU Office of Residence Life, have so far generated $74,500 solely for the fund, say its founders. The shirts are also sold at events like student orientation, where parents and students alike donate. Many parents say they donate because they wish something like the Invisible Need Project existed when they were in college, Glaser says.
The shirts resonated with students so much that the goal of selling 1,000 shirts a year skyrocketed to 8,500 shirts sold in two years. Glaser says that she was “astounded” by the response to “something that we thought was going to put a few cans on a shelf.”
“We thought we would sell a few T-shirts,” she says. “We had no idea how deep the needs of the students that are using these resources.”
A national issue
Food security and college affordability are not problems unique to WMU students. In fact, WMU is one of 447 institutions in the nation that belong to the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
A major factor in the rise of food pantries at colleges is the cost of meal plans college campuses offer. A 10-meal-per-week plan at WMU costs almost $2,000 per semester, according to WMU Dining Services. The cost of food, along with tuition, books and living expenses, led to the rise of food pantries on college campuses nationwide, says Kuntz.
The food pantry’s goal is to supplement students’ campus meal plan as well as help students who are living paycheck to paycheck or whose finances just do not meet their needs while attending school.
“When you look at a college student who is in the college environment,” says Glaser, “there’s an assumption there that because the student is in school, they have the money they need for their basic living needs — they have the money they need for tuition, they have the money they need for food — and that’s not always the case.”