Students Wage War Against Hunger On Campus

A volunteer stocks the shelves at Navigators Food Pantry in University Crossing

By Katharine Webster

Ashley Cochran ’16 paid her way through UMass Lowell with the help of financial aid, a work-study job and a second job on weekends as a food runner at Lowell Beer Works. All her earnings went to pay for campus housing, a required meal plan and books. Her family, who lived in Haverhill, helped out with an occasional meal or toiletries but were unable to assist her financially. When they moved to Nevada her sophomore year, she lost her safety net.

The public health major moved to Riverview Suites her junior year so she could drop the campus meal plan and save money. Friends who also cooked for themselves fed her when they could, but sometimes she had nothing to eat. Then she heard about the Navigators Food Pantry on campus.

“I used it as often as I could,” she says. “I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed that I couldn’t manage to feed myself. I knew there were other students in my situation, but I didn’t know them personally. I always felt like I was the only one.”

She wasn’t.

Nationally, nearly half of college students report going hungry or not knowing where their next meal will come from, and 20 percent of those attending four-year colleges report very low food security, according to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. Students of color and first-generation college students like Cochran are especially vulnerable.

The College and University Food Bank Alliance lists 582 member campuses, including Syracuse University, Georgetown University and Cornell University. Closer to home, MIT, Tufts University and Emerson College have started food pantries or other aid programs.

At UMass Lowell, a recent survey of undergraduates by the Student Government Association found 16 percent have struggled with food insecurity.

“We have students who have aged out of foster care and students who are single parents. We have students who are dealing with homelessness.”
“We have students who have aged out of foster care and students who are single parents. We have students who are dealing with homelessness. We have students who are veterans, students with disabilities and students whose families also face food insecurity,” says Larry Siegel, associate vice chancellor of student affairs and university events. “We’re not alone: Food insecurity is an issue at every college and university, whether public or private. It’s been a problem for the 30 years I’ve been here.”

For most of those 30 years, faculty and staff addressed the problem on a case-by-case basis. As the numbers of needy students grew, administrators looked for a long-term, sustainable solution that wouldn’t drain university resources, Siegel says.

Ultimately, the best and most enduring answers—the Navigators Food Pantry and Support Our Students (S.O.S.)—came from the students themselves.

When psychology Asst. Prof. Stephanie Block arrived on campus in fall 2011, she knew some of her students might need extra support. Block, who researches child maltreatment, was proved right when students who were aging out of foster care began finding their way to her office—and each other.

Soon they formed a club, The Navigators, with Block and Assoc. Prof. Doreen Arcus as advisors. One of the biggest problems the students shared was hunger. “Many of our students have no financial cushion. They’re one crisis away from having to choose between buying food and buying a textbook,” Block says. The Navigators held food and clothing drives to help each other and other needy students.

Amanda Hemond helps assemble a Thanksgiving baskets, each filled with canned vegetables, a dessert, a gift certificate to a local supermarket and more for local families in need.
During the winter holidays last year, faculty and staff donated 6,000 pounds of food and toiletries.
Meanwhile, Block and business lecturer Deborah Finch ’03, ’06, ’12 started keeping granola bars and other food in their desks. This loose network soon became the Harbormasters, a formal group of faculty, staff and alumni who worked alongside the Navigators to support students in straitened circumstances. They found an ally in Julie Nash, then associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Socical Sciences and now vice provost for student success, who gave money to Block for groceries. “But it was a piecemeal response to each crisis,” Block says.

Even as donations grew, distribution—getting food to the students who needed it most—remained a problem, says Michelle Wojcik ’15, who served as the Navigators’ president for two years. The Navigators pushed the university administration to provide space for a food pantry. Siegel and Annie Ciaraldi, associate dean of student affairs, championed their cause.

In fall 2014, Ciaraldi offered the Navigators a pair of locked cabinets in the mailroom at Fox Hall. The fixed location was welcome, but it was embarrassingly public. “Students didn’t have the freedom or privacy to take what they needed, because the mailroom workers were there and other students came to the front counter,” Wojcik says.

When University Crossing opened as a hub for student clubs and services, Erika Nadile ’16, a first-generation college student who succeeded Wojcik as Navigators president, asked Ciaraldi for a dedicated space. With help from Facilities Management, shelving donated by Aramark (the campus food vendor) and a $3,000 startup budget from Siegel, Ciaraldi oversaw the transformation of an office near the loading dock, with a private entrance. The new Navigators Food Pantry opened in September 2016.

At the same time, the Navigators were realizing that their volunteers and resources were stretched to the breaking point. Again, Ciaraldi and her team stepped in, building on the Harbormasters team to create a “neighborhood food project”—a group of 50-plus faculty and staff across campus who collect donations of food, toiletries and school supplies every month. Staff in Student Affairs also trained workstudy students to help out in the pantry so it could hold regular hours.

Now, about 150 people visit the pantry each month. Although it’s open to any member of the campus community, 90 percent of visitors are students. Most are suffering a temporary setback. “When they’re back on their feet, they want to give back by donating or volunteering,” Nadile says.

“Many of our students have no financial cushion. They're one crisis away from having to choose between buying food and buying a textbook.”
Support Our Students—S.O.S.—began with three graduate students in community social psychology. Through the university’s DifferenceMaker program, they teamed up with three undergraduate business and computer science majors to develop an online meal donation system. S.O.S. allows students with meal plans to donate a swipe each semester to students who need meal plan scholarships, and it also allows anyone to donate money. Aramark donates 1,000 swipes each year.

S.O.S. won first prize in the 2014 DifferenceMaker competition. “It’s students helping students, which is fantastic—and with dining hall meals, you get fresh food, which we can’t offer through the pantry,” says Nadile, who is pursuing her master’s degree in chemistry. Now S.O.S. and the Navigators work together on food drives and meal swipe donation campaigns.

Through sponsorship by the nonprofit UMass Foundation, the Navigators Food Pantry can now shop at the Merrimack Valley Food Bank—where everything is 16 cents a pound—and also receive free peanut butter, tuna fish and shelf-stable milk through a federal program.

UMass Lowell hopes to become a model for how to provide social services to students through cooperative relationships. Ciaraldi, who serves as the single point of contact for homeless and hungry students at UML, chairs a committee of her peers from every Massachusetts public two-year, four-year and university campus that advises the Massachusetts Post-Secondary Homeless Students Network.

Meanwhile, ending student hunger has become a cause for the entire campus. Faculty and staff donate to the Navigators Food Pantry through payroll deductions. Residence Life staff organized a silent auction last fall that raised $3,500. Chancellor Jacquie Moloney turned her annual holiday party into a benefit for the food pantry, collecting 6,000 pounds of food, feminine hygiene products and toiletries. And Athletics and student athletes help out through events like River Hawks Against Hunger and the America East Food Frenzy Challenge.

“The people here are so generous—and they’re willing to do anything for our students,” Ciaraldi says. Those who once benefited are the first to repay the favor. Cochran spent the summer after graduation researching and writing a resource guide for students that lists food pantries, soup kitchens and other social service programs in Lowell. Even when she was struggling and using the campus food pantry, she sometimes donated meal scholarships through S.O.S.

“If I’d had a really good weekend at work with a lot of tips, I’d donate a meal—because I knew it really sucked to be in that situation,” she says.