You always hear jokes about the starving college student. But you rarely hear cases of serious need, with students having little or no access to food.

It’s important to bear in mind that “there is no singular story of who is a college student,” said Kerri Willson, director of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships. “Not every college student is 18 to 22 years old. Some people are returning to college.”

And some are quietly struggling.

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This summer, Rutgers University became the latest of at least five New Jersey colleges and universities — and more than 300 nationally — to install a free food pantry on campus at the Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships, at 39 Union Street.

Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as having “a limited or uncertain access to nutritious, safe foods necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

“We had a soft opening in the summer catering to about 30 students,” said Willson, who said she expects a peak towards the end of the month and November as students become more and more aware of the food pantry.

“Not every college student has that family support and needs to make critical decisions,” she said. “Do they live on campus for a cheaper meal plan so they can buy textbooks?”

The food pantry was the desire of Leslie Fehrenbach, who retired as the secretary of the Governing Boards of Rutgers University in 2015 with the partnership of Rutgers Against Hunger (RAH), a university-wide initiative working to address the issues of hunger across New Jersey.

RAH, which was formed in 2008, works to increase awareness of hunger, encourage activism and service to tackle hunger, stimulate research to assist those in need and provide immediate relief through food drives and other events to raise money and collect food.

Wilson said the Rutgers Food Pantry runs on a referral basis from the Dean of Students or another administrative entity. But if a student comes to them for food, none will be turned away. 

“Taking the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, if one basic need such as food is not met, it causes a ripple effect leading to struggles with academics [and so on],” she said.

Willson said the food pantry does not solve the problem; it is a Band-Aid.

“It makes sure a basic need is met and that the support is there,” she said, noting there are 20 food pantries now operating in New Brunswick.

Sigma Pi Fraternity through their ACE (Altruistic Campus Experience) project purchased and installed all the shelving for the food pantry, donated food items as well as picked up the first installation of donations from RAH and stocked the shelves.

Alex Orsini, a senior at Rutgers University and the vice president of Sigma Pi, said every year the fraternity tries to find a way to make a meaningful impact on campus through its ACE project.

“This past year, Kerri made us aware of this project that she wanted to do and we immediately saw the value that it would bring to the community,” he said. “Too many students dealing with the rising cost of a college education are not able to get themselves enough food, so we wanted to help with the food pantry as much as we could.”

Orsini told TapInto that it is every fraternity’s responsibility to make a positive impact on the community.

The pantry received more than 2,000 pounds of food this summer through the 18 summer orientations that were held asking the 8,000 incoming freshman to donate non-perishable food items.

Also, the pantry received many donations from faith-based groups at Rutgers University. The Center For Islamic Life at Rutgers donated more than 100 pounds of food, Willson said.

Capturing the Need

The Rutgers University-New Brunswick Campus has about 40,000 undergraduate students. Currently, there is a working group putting together statistics of how many students are in need, which will be released at the end of the month or early November.

This surveys are being distributed by the Division of Student Affairs with support from faculty in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning Public Policy and other administrators throughout the university.

Willson said the move towards creating a food pantry on campus came from jarring statistics nationwide about food insecurities on college campuses. That included a study released by The City University of New York that found some 47 percent of the population across all 17 CUNY community college and four-year schools had issues with food insecurities.

As the school year continues, Willson said interns at the of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships will sustain inventory of the food pantry and work with various organizations to coordinate food drives and promote hunger awareness campaigns on campus.

The Community Foodbank of New Jersey works with college campuses, as well as more than 1,000 partner charities, including soup kitchens, food pantries and emergency shelters. The Rutgers project is part of a growing trend.

“I am starting to see the trend of many colleges addressing the issue of hunger on college campuses,” said Julienne Cherry, director of agency relations. “Many of the college pantries are working to make it as least invasive as possible while meeting the need of college students. I am happy to see these colleges closing the gap of college hunger.”