Dawinderpreet Brar can’t forget a conversation last spring with one of her College 100 students. “Can you help me with this assignment?” he asked.
“We talked about this for an hour in class,” she reminded him. “Don’t you remember?”
His response was heartbreaking. “No,” he told her. “I was just really hungry and I couldn’t pay attention.”
He hadn’t eaten in days, he added.
Brar, a college relations technician in the admissions office at MCC-Penn Valley, says she’s not the only staffer who encounters hungry students. She keeps snacks in her office for just this reason, and she and others at Penn Valley have walked students to the cafeteria to buy them a meal.
Soon, however, the campus will have a resource in place for students who have to choose between paying the electric bill or buying food, or those who are cash-strapped for any variety of reasons.
The Scouts’ Cupboard, a food pantry, will be housed in Campus Center 229, in the student development suite. This summer, a committee of Penn Valley employees has been accepting donations of both cash and shelf-stable food items. The pantry itself actually resembles a cupboard — it’s a big closet with shelves. It needs a little work before the food can be displayed.
Food pantries can be found on college campuses around the country, including close to home at Johnson County Community College, UMKC and the University of Central Missouri. MCC-Blue River launched a similar project several years ago.
Shelby Coxon, MCC-Penn Valley’s Campus Life and Leadership coordinator, says she included a food pantry in a strategic plan she wrote two years ago, hoping it would get off the ground by 2016-17.
Last fall, the Penn Valley chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa student honor society proposed a pantry to administrators, but that effort didn’t end up going anywhere.
Last spring, however, employees took up the cause. The Scouts’ Cupboard committee is made up of Brar, Coxon, Robin Craig-Carriaga, Celia Hancock, Melissa Johnson-Tribout, Ashley Meyer, Connie Spies and Yvette Sweeney. Together, they represent a variety of departments across campus.
Coxon says the students who approach her about being hungry are those she already knows. And while students are aware there are people on campus they can talk to about a number of issues, “food insecurity” is not necessarily one of them.
Also, if a student’s household doesn’t have enough food, there may be other challenges, such as child care, transportation or keeping the utilities on. Along with food, the Scouts’ Cupboard will offer information on resources around the Kansas City area.
“Our students face many barriers to learning that have nothing to do with academic ability, especially our low-income, under-resourced students,” says Kathrine Swanson, MCC’s vice chancellor for student success and engagement.
In 2015, Swanson says, a survey of 4,000-plus community college students at 10 schools in seven states found that more than half had struggled with food and/or housing insecurity (which could include difficulty paying rent).
Fifty-two percent of the students reported food insecurity — such as skipping meals because of lack of money or just plain being hungry because there was no money or food — in the previous month. Thirteen percent said they’d had at least one experience with homelessness.
The Penn Valley student food pantry is intended to be a stop-gap rather than a continuing source of sustenance. If it’s a Friday and a student knows there’s no food at home to get through the weekend, the Cupboard is there.
“It’s not meant to be permanent-permanent, but we can get them in touch with people” for longer-term assistance, Coxon says.
And at least at the beginning, there’s no plan to limit the number of items a student can take.
Phi Theta Kappa students and Student Ambassadors will be helping out with the pantry.
The employee committee is hoping to arrange some friendly competitions among divisions and student organizations to help keep the pantry stocked and raise money. Other activities are being talked about, too, such as a program on how to eat healthy on a budget.
Meanwhile, Truman Medical Centers’ Mobile Market, a converted city bus stocked with affordable fresh produce, has started making weekly stops at Penn Valley. The pantry project may be able to partner with the Mobile Market.
“We have a very big vision for this Cupboard, but we have a lot of people who are very passionate,” Brar says. “I believe it’s going to work.”
How to help
Donations of non-perishable food items can be dropped off at the Campus Life and Leadership office on the second floor of MCC-Penn Valley’s Campus Center (or to any member of the committee). The Scouts’ Cupboard particularly needs high-protein items such as canned chicken and tuna and peanut butter.
Cash donations are needed, too. (Faculty and staff have contributed about $600 so far.) Checks should be made out to Penn Valley Scouts’ Cupboard and can be sent to Shelby Coxon in the Campus Life and Leadership office, Campus Center.
Each Friday morning starting at 8:30, extras from a Panera restaurant are available in the Campus Center lobby. Those items are free to students, but others are encouraged to make donations; the money goes to the food pantry.
Atlantic magazine story, “When College Students Need Food Pantries More Than Textbooks”: theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/when-college-students-need-food-pantries-more-than-textbooks/490607/