Pantry Helps College Students

Pamela Parker (left) and Sharon Bittner (right), along with other DMACC staff, started Pamela’s Food Pantry 17 years ago. They have so much in common they call themselves “twins.”

Writer: Rachel Vogel-Quinn
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Pamela’s Food Pantry on the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Ankeny started as a table and a dorm-sized refrigerator with yogurt, juice and an occasional leftover apple from lunch. Today, it serves more than 500 students a year.

In 2003, a colleague approached Pamela Parker, who was then a counselor in Disability Services, about a hungry student. Parker thought starting a pantry in her building might help other students in the same situation. Although the pantry bears her name, she says creating it was a “combined effort” with other staff members in the department.

As word spread and pantry visits increased, the staff began to hear about students who needed more than just a quick snack; they didn’t have enough food for the weekend. So Parker and her colleagues began to stock microwavable meals and healthy ingredients. For 16 years, they were supported entirely by donations.

But in 2019, the need surpassed what they could raise, spurring them to apply for grants to close the gap. In May of this year, they received a $2,000 grant from the Bayer Fund.

“We’ve found that the more we have, the more we give away,” says Sharon Bittner, director of program development/academic support services, who helped start the pantry with Parker.

The grant also will support a second pantry on the Ankeny campus. With Pamela’s Pantry leading the way, DMACC has recognized the need to support food-insecure students, and now all six campuses have some form of pantry. A truck from the Des Moines Area Religious Council visits the Urban campus, and the Boone campus partners with the Food Bank of Iowa.

“It has opened my eyes really wide to the issues people have finding food,” Parker says.

In Central Iowa, nearly 20% of residents are food insecure, according to OpportUNITY, a collaborative community effort led by United Way of Central Iowa to address poverty. Food insecurity is common among college students everywhere: Nationwide, 47% of students at two-year institutions experience food insecurity, according to a 2019 survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The population of college students is changing, too. More than 70% are nontraditional, meaning they are financially independent from their parents, are working, have children, or did not receive a traditional high school diploma. On top of tuition, they are paying for rent, utilities and books.

“Our students are very resourceful,” says Drea Iseminger, assistant director of Evening and Student Engagement Services. “They work. They are going to school. It’s not that our students aren’t trying. They are doing all they can to be self-sufficient and support their families. But it’s just not enough.”

The recession accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic has hit young people particularly hard. In May 2020, nearly 40% of unemployment claimants in Iowa were ages 34 and under. Rachel Erkkila, associate provost for the Boone campus, says she has heard many reports of students or their family members losing jobs.

“As a community college, we are bringing in students who want to come, change their lives and then re-contribute back to their own local communities,” Erkkila says. “So many of our students stay local in the state. We feel like they need our support even more, because we know that we are going to keep them here.”

You can support Pamela’s Pantry and other campus food pantries through the DMACC Foundation.

Taking a Swipe at Student Hunger

Faculty and staff aren’t the only ones working to fight food insecurity on college campuses. At Iowa State University, students can donate meal swipes (using their ISU Cards) to peers in need of food assistance.

Some 40% of students who responded to a recent Climate Campus survey said they struggled to provide food for themselves. ISU Give a Swipe—a collaborative effort that involves several departments, including the Office of Student Assistance and Student Counseling Services—helps identify these students. Each student receives five meal swipes at a time to use at any dining center, with the option of adding more later.

During the spring 2020 semester, students donated over 300 meal swipes to their peers. The program also offers additional resources and education, as well as support from a campus dietitian.

The University of Iowa has a similar program, Hawkeye Meal Share, which allows students to donate their unused meal swipes online. Students facing food insecurity can contact Student Care & Assistance to receive the donated meals.

Both efforts allow students to take an active part in supporting their peers. When students with meal plans eat off campus or munch on pizza at a party, they end up with extra meal swipes that would otherwise go to waste. Through these programs, students struggling financially with college expenses can use those extra meals, helping them stretch their limited budgets to cover tuition, housing and class materials.

Students at both universities can also access a food pantry on campus: in the Memorial Union at Iowa and in Beyer Hall at Iowa State.

Iowa Stops Hunger is a yearlong initiative by Business Publications Corp. to raise awareness of hunger in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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