Is your plate half empty or half full? Students benefit from food pantry

For the 2016-17 school year, Appalachian State University had 1,886 students who identified themselves as coming from homes that were at or below poverty guidelines, defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as $24,250 for a family of four.

Of those students, 960 received an institutional grant or scholarship, meaning that 49 percent of students who are at or below the poverty line are receiving no form of institutional aid.

That number, combined with a survey conducted by Appalachian’s Department of Nutrition and Health Care Management during the 2015-16 academic year that found 46.2 percent of students had experienced food insecurity over the previous year, had a lot of people on campus concerned about hungry students and ready to look for an efficient and compassionate way to help.

Low food security means there were multiple reports of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. North Carolina had a 16 percent food insecurity rate in 2015, ranking it eighth among U.S. states in food insecurity.

Appalachian’s food pantry was opened a year ago to faculty, staff and students. The pantry operates from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The pantry started as a rolling cart and grew to a well-organized, 75-square-foot space with wooden shelves. Soups, canned goods, cereals and peanut butter are popular items.

“We get about two or three people visiting the pantry each day and many returning visitors,” said Jen Maxwell, university sustainability project specialist in Appalachian’s Office of Sustainability. “What we’ve seen is that when people come in and realize we’re a very kind, friendly staff, this makes them feel comfortable visiting the pantry.”

The success of the food pantry depends on getting the word out, Maxwell said. Her office has tried to increase its outreach to Appalachian’s staff and has 15 students on an outreach team.

Advocates for students

Dr. Angela Mead and Carla Ramsdell have been advocates for students’ food well-being, even when the subject is hard to bring up. These are their stories.

Angela Mead

Once a hungry student herself, Dr. Angela Mead stocked food for students in her office and listened to their stories. Photo by Marie Freeman

Dr. Angela Mead
Director of Student Services, The Honors College

When students come to Dr. Angela Mead stressed about school, she’ll ask them how long it’s been since the last time they’ve eaten a full meal. Sometimes the answer is “a few days.”

“My job is to help students succeed and they can’t if they’re hungry. Some students are honest and tell me they haven’t eaten in days. Others, you have to probe a bit. They’re sitting on my couch and they’re shaking. I’ll ask: ‘When was the last time you ate?’

“It often comes at the worst time. They run out of food money when they need to stay on their game for finals.

“When a student would come and say, ‘I’m struggling. I’m out of food,’ we’d go stock them up. Students started bringing their friends in saying, ‘I heard you have this.’ I realized this wasn’t just a couple of students. This was pretty widespread on campus.”

Carla Ramsdell

Carla Ramsdell teaches Know Watts Cooking, a first-year seminar with a goal of reawakening a love of cooking healthful, nutritious food among students. Photo by Marie Freeman

Carla Ramsdell
Senior lecturer, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Carla Ramsdell teaches Know Watts Cooking, a first-year seminar on cooking. She recently asked her 22 students to “talk about holiday traditions around food.”

“Someone mentioned pumpkin pie and someone asked how to cook it,” she said. “A student said, ‘You just buy that Libby’s stuff in the can and put it in the pie.’”

“Students don’t have much money, so to buy high-end, prepared food is out of the question,” Ramsdell said. “They end up buying junk that fills them up. They could be buying beans, which cost little and deliver a lot of nutrition, but many of them don’t know how to cook beans.

“We really have to take back cooking,” she said. “We have to move away from this overly processed food tradition that we’ve embraced. When we do that, everything falls into place. Food insecurity happens because people rely on processed or fast food.

“The encouraging sign I see is that people want to move in this direction, [whereas] the limitations I see are that the raw skills aren’t in place.”