MSU Student Food Bank tackles stigmas of food insecurity

Celebrating 25 years of students helping students

Celebrating 25 years of students helping students

Given that it’s often considered a social norm for college students to struggle affording quality food, sometimes many don’t realize they’re food insecure, or lack sufficient access to a variety of healthy, nutritious food.

One of the first college campus food banks in the nation to be run by students and for students, the Michigan State University (MSU) Student Food Bank has been working to combat hunger on MSU’s campus for 25 years by providing food to students dealing with food insecurity and fighting the stigmas associated with it.

“There’s this rite of passage mentality where students are meant to be poor; it’s a part of the college experience,” said Nicole Edmonds, director of the MSU Student Food Bank. “They’re supposed to live off ramen noodles and boxes of processed macaroni and cheese.

“What we’re finding when they actually find out what the definition of food insecurity is, they’re like, ‘Oh, I think that’s me.’”

Approximately 4.4 percent of MSU’s student population is food insecure, according to Nourishing Success, a grant-funded research project conducted by staff and faculty from the MSU Student Food Bank, MSU Department of Health Promotion and Primary Prevention, MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and supported by MSU Student Health and Wellness. In addition to the MSU Student Food Bank and MSU Department of Health Promotion and Primary Prevention, MSU Student Health and Wellness includes MSU Student Health Services, MSU Counseling and Psychiatry Services (CAPS), and the MSU Sexual Assault Program.

Last year, the MSU Student Food Bank had 6,000 total visits. This number represents both new and returning student clients, many with families, who typically do not have campus dining plans. During the first visit, students use a valid MSU Student ID to get registered and once approved, are given a list of foods, as well as personal care and household items, such as toiletries and cleaning supplies, that they can choose from based on availability. The items selected are then retrieved for them by a volunteer.

“That first contact is just so important to removing stigma,” said MSU Department of Health Promotion and Primary Prevention director Dennis Martell, a founding member of the Student Food Bank who still serves as its adviser. “You want to make that first contact as welcoming and as easy as possible.”

Per Nourishing Success, 90 percent of MSU students approve or strongly approve of other students using the food bank. Yet, there’s still stigma associated with asking for help.

Anne Buffington, nutrition program coordinator for the MSU Department of Health Promotion and Primary Prevention and one of the researchers working on the Nourishing Success project, said education and awareness are key to reducing the stigma.

“We are now in the process of creating communication materials that highlight the data we collected to help MSU students know if they need food, there is a place they can go. And that their peers support the choice to utilize the Student Food Bank as a resource,” she said.

“If we can get the person through the door saying that there’s no stigma, that we are just here to assist and help, that’s the biggest challenge,” said MSU assistant vice president for student affairs Allyn Shaw, one of the first student presidents of the MSU Student Food Bank and a longtime volunteer there. “Once we get them through the door and they realize what we do, they tend to come back for as long as they need us.”

Hunger and student success

Access to healthy, nutritious food is vital for student success — that’s a critical reason why the MSU Student Food Bank exists and why they’re focused on addressing the barriers to seeking help.

“Hunger has no boundaries,” said Martell. “There’s no bigger distraction to learning than hunger.”

According to the Nourishing Success study, students with higher food security were more likely to have a higher GPA.

Martell is hoping to eventually partner with faculty and staff to spread the word about the food bank to further encourage success by reducing hunger.

“Working with faculty and staff at some point is a goal for us. We’d like to get to a point where faculty can talk openly about the MSU Student Food Bank and food insecurity in the classroom,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a faculty member said in a big classroom ‘By the way, in my day, when I was in grad school, I didn’t have enough time, sometimes, or didn’t have the resources, but now you have a place where you can go’?”

MSU Student Health Services has already started this discussion by making food security the focus of their quality improvement project for this year and training healthcare providers on how to assess for food security among students. Many of these providers are also located in Olin Health Center, along with the food bank.

“The goal is just to get students connected to the food bank in some way, whether it be the Student Food Bank’s contact information or our distribution schedule,” said Edmonds. “If they’re on the very severe end of that food insecure scale, those healthcare providers are implored to bring those students directly into the food bank, where they’ll find an immediate emergency food bag that’s already made up for them; all they have to do is sign it out. That student is not walking away without food.”

CAPS social worker Ginny Blakely, who is working on the food security project and forging the partnership between the food bank and CAPS, sees the urgency and importance in addressing food insecurity among MSU students.

“I could say a lot of things therapeutically. I can listen to them. I can validate them. But if all they’re thinking of is, ‘I hope my stomach doesn’t grumble too loud and embarrass me,’ then none of that stuff really matters,” she said. “There are higher level places in the mind that cannot be accessed until you have your basic needs met, food being one of the most essential of those.”

Making a difference

Although the MSU Student Food Bank’s core mission is to address food insecurity among MSU students, the mission of service is not lost.

“My father, until his dying day, said, ‘The greatest purpose in life is to give service to others,’” said Martell. “What better way to do that than to provide basic necessities to people without stigma-attaching behavior? Paying it forward, and doing it with the thought that these people are beginning their lives. I wonder sometimes about the 25 years of people who are out there, and think about wanting to reconnect, not to say anything other than, ‘How’s your life? How are you doing?’”

Buffington said the sense of community between Student Food Bank clients and volunteers is inspiring.

“Food is something that connects us all,” she said. “That is a huge part of what the food bank does. We connect people to food, and we connect people through food, and that is a powerful thing.”

Shaw is also inspired by the food bank’s impact.

“I’m very proud of the food bank,” he said. “I think they’ve made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. It would be nice if our need could go away, but as long as it doesn’t, I hope that we can be as successful in the future as we have been so far.”

The MSU Student Food Bank is a founding member of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, or CUFBA. CUFBA’s website provides additional information, resources and statistics about hunger on college campuses.

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