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UI food pantry set to open soon

After more than a year and a half of concerned conversations about low-income student nutrition, the University of Idaho will open a food pantry next month.

More than 650 pounds of food donations from university food drives are sitting on the shelves of the new pantry located on the first floor of the Student Union Building.

“This is a hugely important and necessary service that every college and university should be providing,” said Bruce Mann, coordinator for the Center for Volunteerism and Social Action.

Mann and workers in the volunteer center started to establish the pantry after hearing stories about students in need from Student Support Services, the Women’s Center and the Dean of Students office.

“The concerns about poverty in the city and county are largely invisible,” Dean of Students Bruce Pitman said. “We have many examples of students coming forward and needing additional financial assistance for a wide range of issues.”

Pitman said paying rent and buying food are a couple of the most common issues students have because they sometimes underestimate the cost of going to school. However, more frequently students are encountering unexpected emergencies that force them to choose between paying bills or buying food.

“It’s an unmet need. You don’t hear about it a lot when students talk about how to pay for school, rent and life, but food security is an issue,” Mann said.

The Center for Volunteerism worked with the financial aid office to determine how much need there was for a food pantry on campus.

“Forty-eight percent of our undergraduate population is Pell Grant eligible,” Mann said. “While that doesn’t translate directly to being in need of food, it does represent that they come from a low-income background.”

Pitman said many UI students come from nontraditional situations and depend heavily on financial aid for basic living expenses.

“Those students are often not visible. They are at the edge of campus life,” Pitman said. “Many are embarrassed and they do not want to draw attention to their situation. They only do so when they have no other alternative.”

Maggie Hand, an outreach and recruitment student coordinator at the Center for Volunteerism, said the need for a food pantry grew because of rising tuition costs and an increase in first-generation students who are struggling to understand the financial aspect of college. There are food banks available off campus, but they are not accessible to students without vehicles.

“We started hearing stories about kids missing class in order to get food for their families or themselves,” Hand said.

The center also worked closely with the Trinity Baptist Food Pantry to alleviate some of the burden on local food banks while leaving enough food donations to go around.

Startup costs for the pantry came to about $2,000 and were paid for by the UI Parents Association, which funds programs to improve the quality of life for students.

Campus food pantries are a growing trend, according to Hand and Pitman. The Center for Volunteerism read studies on recently established pantries at Oregon campuses before setting up their own. Washington State University also has a food bank within Student Support Services. It was established in 2001 after administrators noticed a need for it.

The pantry is tentatively scheduled to open Jan. 15 and will be distributing food near the SUB information desk at midday and again from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. The pantry is a free and confidential service available to students and the community.

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