Anoka Ramsey Community College: The Start of the Campus Cupboard

November 16, 2018

Megan Schlecht served with the 2017-18 College Health Corps Cohort at Anoka Ramsey Community College. She worked to help address needs of low-resourced students, and was successful in kicking off a campus pantry. Keep reading to learn more about her experience and advice for others!

Q: What is the Campus Cupboard and what role does it play for students at Anoka Ramsey?

A: The Campus Cupboard is a new campus food pantry at Anoka-Ramsey Community College that students can come to for free nutritious food, hygiene products, and information on community resources.  Overall, the Campus Cupboard’s role is to be a valuable resource to students who find themselves in a tight financial situation and have no money to buy food, especially more expensive healthy food.  It is extremely difficult to do well in school while hungry, so the Campus Cupboard aims to provide access to groceries so that students can make meals for themselves and thus stay better focused in class. Right now, the Campus Cupboard is open once a month for two days in a row. We chose to be open on dates towards the end of the month since that is when students get strapped with money and we wanted to provide a cushion on students’ food budget. One the main goals of the Campus Cupboard is to reduce stress around access to food. We know that the Campus Cupboard alone cannot solve the whole problem, but hopefully it can provide some relief for students who are in financially unstable situations.  Connecting students with community resources such as locations of free meals or food shelves, fare for all sites, and so on is an added layer that was designed to support students who may not be aware of other resources that can help them. When an Anoka-Ramsey student comes to the Campus Cupboard, they can take up to twelve items of their choice when they visit. Operating as a choice model was very important because we recognize that students know what foods best compliments their dietary needs and what is already in their food pantry at home.  We play music and set up the space to be as similar to a grocery store experience as possible. By providing a more comfortable space our hope is that it will eliminate some of the stigma that is associated with hunger.

Q: How did you identify the need for this resource on campus?

A: When I first arrived on campus, the first thing I did was speak to the faculty to ask them about what they viewed as challenges for students.  One of the major themes was that many of their students were hungry and they could tell that it affected their performance in class. That was the first sign to me that food insecurity was a big issue on campus.  In the fall of 2017, Boynton Health conducted a health survey for Anoka-Ramsey students. In the report, it revealed that one in five students at Anoka-Ramsey experiences food insecurity, and more than one in eight of those students run out of food at the end of the month.  I was shocked by how many students worried about not having enough food. As I did more research, I discovered that food insecurity among college students was much more common than I originally had thought. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab had some excellent research on how prevalent college student food insecurity is nationwide and how it affects student performance.  In February, I conducted focus groups with students asking them about what some of their biggest challenges were that impede them from being successful in school. Again, stories of food insecurity emerged. Many students agreed on the fact that the cafeteria was too expensive or sold food that they either could not eat or did not enjoy. However, the only other real option for purchasing food was the vending machines or the book store, which sold mainly candy and chips and not meals that students wanted.  On top of that, Anoka-Ramsey is located in a food desert. The closest restaurant is McDonald’s, which students expressed they did not prefer to eat at every day or at all, especially in the winter months. Additionally, all of Anoka-Ramsey students commute to campus. Some students live far away and may have class that lasts the whole day. If they did not have food to bring from home and cannot afford the food in the cafeteria, they most likely wound up not eating at all.

Q: Did you face any challenges during the development/planning process, and what kept you motivated to overcome them?

A: I encountered many challenges while developing the Campus Cupboard.  The first was knowing exactly where to start and how to tailor a program to Anoka-Ramsey’s needs.  I began by immersing myself in literature about how to start a campus food pantry. The College and University Food Bank Alliance, or CUFBA, had wonderful and comprehensive toolkits online. However, it was overwhelming and I began to realize how many different ways you can set up a food pantry.  I was worried about how to make the right choices that would best fit Anoka-Ramsey. For example, how to utilize volunteers, how many food items students can take, and other minor details that go into developing a food pantry. I decided to watch YouTube videos of other college campus food pantries to see how they had their space set up and what systems they used.  What was most helpful though was going to other campus food pantries in the area and being able to ask questions. Once I felt confident in all the information I gathered, my next biggest challenge was proposing to the college that this resource was something that we needed. I presented to many different campus leaders, including the President’s Cabinet, the Directors of the College, the Campus Foundation and so on.  It was my task to show the school leaders why a campus food pantry was needed and how it was going to work. The administration all agreed that this was something they thought was important, but my biggest obstacle was finding a space to put the Campus Cupboard. It took a few months and after much determination I found a location that I thought would fit well with what I was looking for. After our location was secured, all the pieces seemed to fall into place after that including funding, partnering with faculty for volunteers, and confirming our community partners.  There were moments during this experience where I thought to myself that there was no way we could make this happen so quickly, but I was determined to do so for the students who needed this program. I could not have done it without the supportive words of other staff and the new VISTA, Hinnah Ayub, who joined me later on this journey to establish the Campus Cupboard.

Q: What did you notice during the opening pantry?

A: During the opening of our food pantry, I was very happy with the turnout. Initially, though, I was concerned that it could have been more hectic than it was. But our volunteers did an excellent job making it a welcoming space, and we had 114 students over the first two days that we were open. The flow of students went smoothly, but we did end up adding a separate survey station since there were long lines at the check-out table of students who were waiting to take our survey. I was happily surprised by the amount of students willing to give feedback about the Campus Cupboard.  Students, faculty, and staff commented on how nice the space looked, especially with the tablecloths and baskets. Additionally, we learned that having music playing in the room was critical for making the space more comfortable. I was thrilled with the large number of students that came to the Campus Cupboard. I believe it speaks to the success of our marketing strategies that we put a lot of effort into. We did have some fresh produce that some faculty donated for our first pantry, too. We noticed some students were hesitant taking some of the items like yellow squash. We think it was because students did not know what to make with it, so for the future we are trying to add recipe cards that students can take with them.  Furthermore, some students with dietary restrictions said it would have been helpful to have signage for what is gluten free, soy free, dairy free, and so on to make it easier for them to shop.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of this experience?

A: The most rewarding part of this experience was seeing the Campus Cupboard transform from just a floating idea in my head all the way to watching it come to life and seeing first-hand the students who benefit from the program I created. Many of their comments on our survey or in person were thanking us for having this resource and it warms my heart. Despite the challenges I went through, I think it also proved to myself that I can overcome anything that I put my mind to.

Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to establish a campus pantry?

A: Creating change is not easy, so my first piece of advice is that it is necessary to get the support of the campus and its leaders beforehand.  Without that, it will be nearly impossible to get started. To get community buy in, you need to establish the need. Start with nationwide or county data on food insecurity rates.  Additionally, check out The Wisconsin HOPE Lab who is leading the way on researching college student food insecurity. After you get a broader understanding of the issue, begin with your specific population.  If there was not a recent survey taken by students like in my case, create your own survey on food insecurity. Furthermore, I would gather student voices. In my experience, weaving in storytelling with hard data was a key factor in influencing school leaders to support my cause.  People are much more inclined to act after hearing another person’s story rather than a statistic. Putting the two together provides a much more compelling argument. I would also advocate for appealing to the college’s goals. At Anoka-Ramsey, campus leaders were interested in helping more students graduate.  In my presentations, I tied together how food insecurity affects students’ focus while in class which can make it more difficult to complete classes and graduate. Once you get school’s approval, you will need to find out how you want to set up your pantry. Research as much as you can online and go visit campus food pantries in your area.  Coordinators of campus food pantries are happy to share information and answer questions you have. When you visit, make notes about what you liked or disliked about each food pantry so you know how you would like yours to be. Lastly, I would also strongly advise to use the choice model if you are able to. The choice model accommodates best for all of the different dietary needs and provides a more dignified experience than a pre-packaged box system.  Securing funding and finding a space on campus will be your biggest obstacles, so utilize the resources around you and do not be afraid to ask for help. No one person can do it alone.

Below is Megan’s feature in the October 2018 National Service Report!