When she heard that the 2015 Boynton Student Health Survey had reported that 17 percent of University of Minnesota undergraduate students worried that their food would run out before they had money to buy more, Rebecca Leighton, a second-year graduate student at the University’s School of Public Health, decided that something needed to be done.
“This is what I study,” Leighton said. “I know the overall importance of food to the whole person. Most people understand that nutritious food is key to physical health. What they don’t always understand is that feelings of anxiety around accessing food can also impact a person’s mental health.”
The same Boynton survey reported that the number of U of M students reporting a mental health diagnosis was up 33 percent. Leighton decided that she would work to remedy this situation in the best way she knew how.
“My research for my degree is interviewing food-insecure students,” she explained. “I’m learning about the psychological impact of food insecurity.” Leighton knew that many universities nationwide run student food pantries. “Every Big 10 school except the U of M and Northwestern operates a food pantry for students,” she said. “Clearly, we’re behind the game, so I thought, ‘Why not pull together a group of students and make a food pantry happen?’”
The student group Leighton founded is called Nutritious U. It’s dedicated to providing fresh, healthy and accessible food to U of M students. The group, which worked with a number of other campus organizations including University of Minnesota Dining Services and Boynton Health, decided that they would start by organizing a three-day food pantry as a trial. They’d survey users to see if there was enough need on campus to justify a more permanent program.
Once they had a plan in place, Nutritious U members applied for a grant from the Minnesota Student Association. They were awarded $2,500 for purchasing commodity food and fresh produce to stock the pantry.
The first food pantry event was held Feb. 21-23 in Appleby Hall on the University’s East Bank. Organizers purchased about $1,200 worth of food from The Food Group, a hunger relief organization that distributes food to some 200 regional food shelves and meal programs. Nutritious U plans to spend the rest of the money to stock a second food pantry in March.
“Rebecca’s group is fantastic,” said Dave Golden, Boynton director of public health and communications. “I am so impressed with the work they have done setting up this food pantry, and excited to see where this project will take them.”
Leighton said that she and her fellow organizers developed their plans for the Nutritious U food pantry after speaking with other campus food groups.
“We had a lot of conversations with other big schools like the University of Michigan that already have successful food pantry programs,” Leighton said. “They gave us a lot of tips.”
In their promotion of the event, Nutritious U tried to emphasize their belief that fighting hunger is part of promoting “all-encompassing health,” both physical and mental.
“We want to send the message to students that increasing food access is part of living a balanced, healthy life,” Leighton said. “Having access to nutritious food is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
When the food was delivered, it seemed like a huge amount. Because there has never been a student food pantry at the University of Minnesota, Leighton said that Nutritious U members didn’t know how many people would show up.
“We scheduled the pantry over three days to make sure that we’d get through all the food,” Leighton explained. “We assumed we’d get around 400 students over 3 days. Instead we got 491 on Day 1.”
The visitors, Leighton said, were “a mixed population of all different ethnicities. They seemed to be in their mid-20s mostly, college age. It looked like the kind of person you’d see any day walking around the U. ”
Event organizers asked pantry visitors to fill out a brief questionnaire after picking up their food. The response was good: 460 students filled out the form, which included two food-insecurity screening questions. Seventy-five of respondents screened positive for food insecurity.
“The majority of the students that came to the event indicated that they were experiencing food insecurity,” Leighton said. “Most users weren’t just stopping by for a snack.” She believes that the overwhelming response to the event, combined with the initial survey results, indicates a need for an ongoing program.
“We have a second food pantry planned for three days in March,” Leighton said. “After that we are meeting with our stakeholder faculty and staff. We are talking about launching a permanent pantry on campus.”
There is a stereotype of the starving college student, an ambitious, hard-working young person who survives on little sleep and even less food. Leighton believes this image has to be put to rest.
“The idea is that when you are in college you are supposed to be poor, to live off ramen and PB&J,” Leighton said. “But it’s a very bad idea. The habits we form in our early 20s dictate the habits we’ll have later in life. Habits like these have a negative influence on your mental and physical health.”
Mary Sutherland, director of communications and media relations for the Minnesota-based food bank Second Harvest Heartland, said that she believes college students shouldn’t have to worry about where there next meal is coming from.
“The perception is that young people are supposed to be scraping by when they’re in college,” Sutherland said, “but when it is because of food insecurity or financial need, this creates a level of stress that can’t be good emotionally.” Programs like Nutritious U’s food pantry should be able to help relieve some of that stress, at least temporarily.
The Boynton survey results underscore the link between anxiety around food and mental health concerns, Golden said.
“Students who fit into the food insecurity category reported more days negatively affected by their mental and physical health and a higher number of days per month where they said their mental and physical health impacted their daily activities,” Golden said. “If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that this could take a toll on a student’s mental health.”
Golden said he supports Nutritious U’s efforts and can envision a day when the university will have a full-time pantry available to students.
“Food insecurity as a long-term chronic stressor,” he said. “If a food pantry helps some students reduce that long-term chronic stress, I could imagine that it could improve their overall mental health. And who could think that would be a bad idea?”
The next Nutritious U student food pantry will be held from noon to 8 p.m. March 29-31 at the University YMCA, 1801 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis.