For nearly two years, thousands of staff and students have visited a small food bank located right on the University of Oklahoma campus.

Based on a “gut feeling” that there were hungry students on campus, the university partnered with student leaders to open the OU Food Pantry to serve anyone with a school ID card, said Matt Marks, graduate director of the pantry.

And every semester since it first opened in March 2017, the number of people who utilize the OU Food Pantry continues to grow, he said.

“It was very eye-opening for myself because I really didn’t know what the need was on campus,” said Marks, who helped found the pantry as a student. “Everything is so expensive, whether that’s students paying for their rent, their car, their textbooks, their course fees. … I think that leaves some students feeling like they need a little extra help or they have exhausted all their funds.”

Nationwide, 48 percent of college students experience some level of food insecurity, said Joy Ferrin, the school pantry coordinator with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

Still experts say the stereotype of the “starving college student” — living on macaroni and cheese and ramen — has existed for so long that it’s taken time to realize that students really are starving.

“I think a lot of colleges are realizing to care for their students, they need to provide more than academics,” Ferrin said.

Ferrin’s campus pantry program launched in November 2017 with an Oklahoma college. Less than two years later, there are now 12 campus pantries, which have distributed nearly 33,000 pounds of food. Another two are poised to open in the coming days.

The state’s Regional Food Bank currently works with more than six while still more quickly come on board.

Ada’s East Central University is in the process of opening a food pantry thanks in part to a $6,000 donation, university President Katricia Pierson told the state’s Regents for Higher Education in June.

“Unfortunately, there is a great need,” she said. “We do have a lot of hungry students.”

The stigma of food insecurity

Joe Weaver, Oklahoma State University senior vice president for administration and finance, said his university has entered into a $50,000 a year contractual agreement with Stillwater’s food pantry, Our Daily Bread.

In return, they provide awareness and access to college students along with faculty who are doing research, said Weaver, who also serves on the pantry board.

“We’re discovering that our students don’t want to go to a food pantry no matter where it is,” Weaver said. “There’s a stigma attached to food insecurity.”

He said the problem on Stillwater’s campus is not the lack of food availability — there’s some on every corner.

“The problem is the people without resources don’t have the ability to buy it,” he said.

Experts say there’s a misconception that most students are on meal plans. In actuality many students commute or can’t afford them.

Since the OSU’s pantry is located about five minutes from campus, officials are trying to figure out how to bring it to campus, perhaps through a mobile food truck, Weaver said.

“The problem is, would the student walk up to that food truck and admit they have a food insecurity problem?” he said.

In Norman, Marks said OU’s pantry costs average up to $1,000 a month depending on how much food they order from the Regional Food Bank. The university pays the rent and utilities while the rest of the funding comes from elsewhere. Student groups and other organizations contribute.

“Students that don’t eat struggle academically,” Marks said. “It can really affect their whole lives.”

The campus hunger is gradually being taken more seriously, said Greg Raskin, a spokesman with the eastern Oklahoma food bank.

But as the awareness of hunger on campus grows, he hopes campus pantries will ensure more students remain in school rather than focused on battling hunger.

“If we can make this short-term, low-cost investment while kids are in school, then hopefully that will increase their earning potential, and we won’t have to support them in society down the road,” he said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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