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How campus food pantries meet the hidden needs of Vermont college students

Several young people stand in a line in a hallway in front of a vending machine and ATM.
Kennedy Connors
Vermont Public / Community News Service
About one in five students at the University of Vermont reported facing food insecurity. That’s in line with the rates among college students across the country. In recent years, many Vermont colleges have opened on-campus food pantries for students.

On a Thursday in April, the food pantry on the first floor of the student center at the University of Vermont had cabbage, potatoes and onions, oranges and spinach, along with bread, cookies, cans of soup, beans and peanut butter. It was busy — throughout the afternoon, almost 150 people showed up.

“When I went there before it opened at like 12:50 there was a line stretching all the way to the vending machines,” said Atlas Cooper, a student who uses the pantry almost every week. “That’s a lot of people all just waiting for food.”

The pantry is open to students, staff and community members, and for Cooper, it’s been a huge help.

"Not that I’m opposed to dumpster diving, but I’d prefer fresh food,” they said.

“We collectively really need to leave behind, once and for all, the misconception that college students aren’t facing really basic needs security issues.”
Ivy Enoch, Hunger Free Vermont

These types of food pantries exist on college campuses across Vermont. And they’re fairly new — the one here didn’t exist until 2020. It’s completely student run, with over a dozen volunteers, including this reporter. Last year, they received over 17,000 visits.

It’s made a big impact, said Maeve Forbes, one of the student directors.

Seven young women pose for a photo in front of a mural that says Welcome to Rally Cat's Cupboard, with painted cans of peas, corn, muffins, honey, peppers, cabbage, and other food items.
Kennedy Connors
Vermont Public / Community News Service
The food pantry at the University of Vermont regularly gets over 150 visitors each week. It relies on over a dozen student volunteers to operate.

“One of the custodial staff shared a story with me. Before the cupboard was here, she used to see students when she was collecting the compost. Sometimes students would come and take food out of the compost,” Forbes said.

With the cupboard in place, she said that doesn’t happen anymore.

Another resource at the University of Vermont provides a limited number of free meal swipes for students at campus dining halls. That program has seen rising demand — over 1,000 students enrolled last year, a 40% increase from the year before.

Other campuses are also expanding their free food offerings to students, like the Community College of Vermont. They’re planning to open food pantries at their campuses in St. Albans and White River Junction this fall, in addition to existing pantries at six campuses across the state.

At the pantry in Winooski, the shelves were lined with microwavable mac and cheese and breakfast bars. The pantry, attached to their student resource center, also offers a space where students can lounge or study.

Even at small, private schools, like Champlain College, there’s a food pantry connected to the student resource center. It’s open four days a week and is run by Emily Merrill, the student resources coordinator, and a team of work-study students.

“This really is a community response to our students' needs,” Merrill said.

One of her goals is to make sure students know about the pantry.

"We have seen the response is generally an increase in use of this space and an increase in students asking for assistance when they need it," she said.

Champlain is one of eight Vermont schools that meet every few months to talk about food security on campuses, led by Hunger Free Vermont.

The group shares ideas about what’s worked well on different campuses.

“So food pantry design, best practices for creating a welcoming and destigmatized environment, good models for intake forms, ideas for garnering more donations and volunteer time and also just garnering support from institutions' administrations,” said Ivy Enoch, who leads the meetings.

They've been meeting for almost four years and don’t plan to stop any time soon.

“We collectively really need to leave behind, once and for all, the misconception that college students aren’t facing really basic needs security issues,” Enoch said, “Because they are.”

This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.

Kennedy is a freshman at the University of Vermont.
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