CEDAR FALLS — As hundreds of University of Northern Iowa students packed meals for a regional food bank Monday, it was entirely possible a few dozen of those volunteers also might not know where their next meal was coming from.
That’s according to the results of a UNI survey on food insecurity last year, which showed many more students than previously thought had “food insecurity,” or a lack of access to enough food at times.
Fifty-one percent of students had “varying levels” of food insecurity, according to the survey results, with 16 percent of students having “very low food security” — meaning they eat inconsistently and sometimes not at all.
“That’s higher than the national average,” said Ashley Adams, UNI’s campus programs coordinator. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said 11.8 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2017, the latest year for which data was available.
Out of the results of that surprising survey came a new solution for campus: the Panther Pantry, a space in the Maucker Union basement where students in need can get canned and boxed food as well as other staples like pots and pans, can openers and toiletries they need for living on their own.
The Panther Pantry had its soft opening last week and will be announced in a campuswide email next week, said Adams, pantry adviser. The pantry has already helped a couple of students.
“We’re trying to do more to meet the needs of our students,” Adams said.
The Panther Pantry got started with 1,300 pounds of food and $12,000 in donations, and the room was renovated out of a former lounge and set up over the college’s winter break, Adams said.
Students who may qualify can come to the pantry and fill out a form declaring their financial need. The pantry takes “non-identifiable” information from them to help figure out the demographics and the scope of the food insecurity issue at UNI, Adams said.
After that, students can visit the pantry, located just down the stairs in Maucker Union, in a nondescript private room near the lounge.
“Students wanted the pantry centrally located, but also wanted some type of anonymity when using it,” Adams said.
The Panther Pantry partners with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, one of more than 200 food pantries and nonprofit agencies that use the food bank’s storage capabilities and cost-share the food, said Barb Prather, the food bank executive director.
“There’s a lot of college kids that don’t have a lot of money and, for whatever reason, they might live off campus or might not be on the meal plan, and this way it can help them stretch their dollars too,” Prather said. “And it’s right there at UNI, which is great.”
For those looking to help, Adams said monetary donations would help the pantry best.
“We’re trying to provide options,” Adams said. “(Students) have needs like anybody else. We’re hoping to meet those needs.”