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Northeast Ohio college, university food pantries see a rising need

The outside of the University of Akron's Campus Cupboard, a food pantry on its Akron campus.
The University of Akron
The Campus Cupboard is a food pantry on the University of Akron campus.

Universities across Northeast Ohio are helping hundreds of students - and community members - get enough to eat each year through food pantries and distribution events on their campuses, and they say demand for those services is rising.

Students can walk in and get shelf-stable food and other resources like toiletries and diapers each week for free from these pantries, like the Lift Up Vikes Food Pantry and Resource Center at Cleveland State University, or the ZipAssist Campus Cupboard at the University of Akron. The four major public universities in Northeast Ohio all have food pantries, in addition to hosting food distribution events on campus, but private colleges like Baldwin Wallace and community colleges like Cuyahoga Community College host food pantries as well.

Millions of college students across the U.S. struggle to afford food, with an estimated 23% of undergraduate students and 12% of graduate students nationally experiencing food insecurity, according to a national survey conducted by the federal government of the 2019-2020 school year.

Katie Carver Reed, vice president of the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, said demand has been rising across the region for food pantries' services - both on campus and off - since at least 2020. She says rising costs, stagnant wages and the ending of pandemic-era benefits have made things more challenging for some families. College students in particular have their own unique circumstances to deal with: many are managing tight schedules between work and school - some working minimum wage jobs - and they have other expenses like textbooks on top of their tuition.

"There's this idea that, 'oh, you know, when I was in college, all I could eat was ramen noodles to make my way through,'" she said. "And that's the common experience that people talk about. Well, if all you can do is eat ramen noodles, that's food insecurity. You don't have enough resources to get the food that you need to nourish your body and your mind."

Ali Martin Scoufield, associate vice president and dean of students at Cleveland State, said anybody in the community can come to the pantry and resource center at Cleveland State - not just students - due to its status as a Greater Cleveland Food Bank site.

We work really hard to dispel any myths about food pantries or any negative associations around food pantries,” Martin Scoufield said. “We view the food pantry as just another resource for our students, just like the library or financial aid or tutoring

She said she’s seen a “steady increase” in student need for the pantry over the last four years she’s been at Cleveland State, serving about 380 people a week last year, with over 100,000 pounds of food distributed total. She said monthly visitors are up 50%, from 2022 to 2023, and about 25% more food was distributed in fall 2023 compared to fall 2022. A Kent State University spokesperson said the school is serving 120 unique people each week at its twice-weekly food pantry; that's up 140% since December 2021.

Anna Ball, senior associate director of ZipAssist, the University of Akron's student support and advocacy office, said the Campus Cupboard has seen a 200% growth in use.

Another factor in the increase in use of the food pantries could also be that colleges have steadily worked to advertise and increase the services their pantries have provided. A spokesperson for Tri-C said the college has also seen an increase in use of its food pantries as it's expanded to put one on each of its four campuses, and renovated those spaces.

Colleges and universities are also trying to improve access to the food resources they provide. University of Akron and Kent State also do monthly food distribution events in partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank which are open to students and the community at large, officials said. During one recent such distribution almost 200 people showed up. Akron also has six “grab and go” locations spread out across campus, as well as pantry locations at its regional campuses.

Baldwin Wallace, meanwhile, started providing "survival kits" in spring 2023, giving students a packed bag or box of food during campus breaks while dining halls are closed. And the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank has a pop-up pantry program where food is distributed out of trucks in parking lots at the University of Akron, Kent State, Stark State and elsewhere.

Ball, with the University of Akron, said people might not fully understand the level of need college students have.

I think food insecurity is something that is not typically thought of for this specific demographic, but it is something that is experienced,” she said. “Because it's something that's hard sometimes to talk about, we don't always think of it as a prevalent thing.”

Scoufield Martin, with Cleveland State, said it makes sense to offer this kind of support to students.

There's tons of research that supports that if students are hungry, they're not focused on courses,” she said.

Scoufield added that average age of a student at Cleveland State is 27, and so students are coming from all walks of life, including parents with children.

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Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.