Feeding the community

Shifting economy leads large number of MSU students to food bank


Pains of hunger took the place of the energy Renee Hill needed to complete her homework or function at a basic level.

Just an apple wasn’t enough to keep Hill, an advertising senior, satisfied for the whole day, but she didn’t have any other choice. It was the only food she could get her hands on.

As a result of the economic situation of recent years, Hill couldn’t afford to pay for food on top of her tuition and housing fees. Her fellow classmates didn’t understand that when she asked for food from the cafeteria, she was hoping to receive enough so she wouldn’t go hungry — so she would be full for at least one day.

Infographic by Liam Zanyk McLean / MSU Student Food Bank

Video: Feeding the community

“The realization that I can’t support myself — that’s the most painful part about it,” Hill said. “This is something that no one should ever have to go through because, quite frankly, it’s painful and it’s very difficult.”

Luckily for Hill, she found a way to handle her hunger.

Hill is one of about 4,000 to 5,000 MSU students who use the MSU Student Food Bank each year to get by, said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the MSU Student Food Bank.

“This is my main source of where I get my food,” Hill said. “It’s very rare for me to go without food now because I come here.”

For Hill, and many users of the MSU Student Food Bank, having this option on campus has made the difference between going hungry and living a normal student life.

Spartan support
Ahmed Rady, an international doctoral student, worked on research as he waited for a volunteer to call his number in a room inside Olin Health Center.

Rady said he has been relying on the MSU Student Food Bank for food for his family for nearly five years, as long as he has been pursuing a degree at MSU.

The MSU Student Food Bank is believed to be one of the first student food banks in the country, nearing its 20th year, Smith-Tyge said.

He said MSU is one of just hundreds of universities that provide a food bank for students.
But that doesn’t really matter to the students, such as Rady, who use the food bank.

For them, it’s the MSU Student Food Bank’s impact and not its statistics and history that makes a difference.

“It supplies me with some food stuff that helps me because, as you know, the graduate student life and salary is not enough, especially if you have a family,” Rady said.

A majority of MSU Student Food Bank users are graduate students, according to self-reported data from the food bank.

This was particularly surprising for Operations Manager Emily Finnan, a dietetics senior, who didn’t realize just how many graduate students MSU had or how many of them are supporting families.

It’s because of this Finnan said she enjoys working at the food bank.

It’s a chance to work at one of the first food banks in U.S. colleges and work with the entire community to benefit other MSU students, she said.

“It’s kind of an honor,” Finnan said. “And the fact that it’s run by students … that’s a really amazing (aspect).”

Smith-Tyge said the food bank is the product of the entire community’s support.

He said the Council of Graduate Students, the athletics department, Residence Education and Housing Services, on-campus food services and other groups help to keep the food bank up and running, even during the recession of recent years.

The cost of living
“I am in a certain level of financial need but there are others that are worse off than I am,” anthropology senior Alex Mendenall said.

Mendenall needs money for rent, tuition and food but with 21 credits, he can’t work more than two days a week, which only covers his rent.

Economics professor Charles Ballard said Mendenall’s situation — having to choose between a place to live or food to eat — is not completely uncommon for college students that might be in lower-income groups hit particularly hard by the economic downturn in recent years.

“We’re still struggling to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” Ballard said. “Even though MSU has moved very aggressively to make sure that there is enough financial aid, there’s no way that we can fully reduce the financial stress on our students.”

Ballard said although many college students come from demographics not heavily impacted by the recession, given the rise in tuition and other costs of a higher education, the situation is not surprising.

Smith-Tyge said the data collected by the MSU Student Food Bank shows a clear trend that more students used the food banks during the worst years of the recession, in 2008 and 2009.

At its peak, the food bank had more than 5,000 users in a year.

The economic improvements since that time have led to the food bank servicing just less than 4,000 students in a year.

“In the economic climate that we’re crawling out of, people find themselves in situations they might not have otherwise planned on,” Smith-Tyge said. “There’s no shame in asking for help.”

He said students losing eligibility for bridge cards also increased user numbers at the food bank.
Finnan said because so many students are struggling financially, she believes many more students would use the service if they knew about it.

“My sense is that food banks nationwide have been stretched to meet the needs that they see because of the downturn of the economy in the last four to five years,” Ballard said. “The economy has been growing for three years now, (and) the stretch on the food banks might lessen (but) these problems won’t go away.”

Full-filling goals
MSU’s hunger problem was the primary reason for opening the food bank in 1993, but Smith-Tyge believes the university can have an effect on hunger outside the MSU community in the coming years.

Smith-Tyge has been leading the effort to link MSU with other college food banks to develop an alliance, which will help determine best practices, open the potential for new college food banks and, years down the line, compile statistical evidence on the impact of a college food bank.

“To start, it is an information and resource-sharing group,” Smith-Tyge said. “It’s pretty exciting when you think of the humble origins of the MSU Student Food Bank.”

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