Colorado colleges rethink how to address increasing student hunger

Metropolitan State University of Denver’s newest strategy to address student hunger is Rowdy’s Corner — a 1,000-square-foot former campus convenience store turned free-food-and-supplies stop for students.

Not only is the space new, but the attitude around it is reinvented, too.

The Auraria Campus institution is intentionally avoiding calling the location a “food pantry” in an attempt to shed the stigma students may have around the term and encourage them to use the offerings shame-free.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in demand from our students, and I think part of that is the continued impacts of the pandemic and cost of living in Denver, but also about us doing a better job at communicating what support looks like and how to find support and that you don’t have to be in crisis to connect with your community and get a bit of help,” said Miguel Huerta, MSU Denver’s assistant director of community engagement and programs.

But MSU Denver is just one of many Colorado higher education institutions working to keep students and their families fed.

As college student demographics shift to include a more diverse population — parents, low-income learners and people facing housing instability, for example — colleges must adapt to meet students where they’re at, said Roberto Montoya, chief educational equity officer at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Nearly 40% of students at two-year higher education institutions and almost 30% of students at four-year institutions are food insecure, according to a 2020 survey of more than 195,000 students across the country conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.

Locally, colleges are seeing a huge demand for food resources, particularly as ongoing fallout from the pandemic, Montoya said.

“We need our institutions to be learner-ready as opposed to learners being college-ready,” Montoya said. “This requires us to change and rethink how we approach serving our students and doing it through the lens of dignity. It requires us to understand learners have differentiated needs and we have to be able to respond to those needs in a nimble way. I think institutions are doing a great job of that.”

Hunger-free checklist

The state higher education department maintains a hunger-free campus checklist, a statewide initiative providing a rubric that institutions can follow to better address food insecurity on their campuses. Some of the tasks include offering food pantries, holding hunger-related awareness events and helping students sign up for SNAP benefits.

The Colorado institutions that currently meet the hunger-free requirements are: Aims Community College, Colorado Mesa University, all Colorado Mountain College campuses, Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University in Fort Collins and Pueblo, Fort Lewis College, MSU Denver, Pueblo Community College, Technical College of the Rockies, and the University of Colorado’s Anschutz, Boulder and Denver campuses.

At MSU Denver, the last iteration of Rowdy’s Corner was much smaller, tucked away in a “closet-like” space that lacked much decoration or personality, Huerta said. The new location is 10 times larger in a centrally-located spot inside the Tivoli Student Union and was built to resemble a market and community space.

“It’s more aesthetically pleasing,” Huerta said.

Students often feel like they’re taking food away from someone who needs it more than they do by using Rowdy’s Corner, Huerta said, but the school is trying to banish this way of thinking and stress that it’s OK to stop by and grab something if you’re hungry.

In addition to items like fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, snacks, hygiene and school supplies, Huerta said Rowdy’s Corner intends to be a conduit for other services that can help students in need, including financial coaching, nutrition consulting, cooking demonstrations and signing students up for SNAP benefits.

“Breaking the stigma”

About a third of Aims Community College students who participated in a college-wide survey last year said they were skipping meals because they couldn’t afford to eat more than once a day.

“There is a high number of college students that are food insecure,” said Patty Schulz, Aims’s hunger-free campus coordinator. “They’re choosing not to eat so that their kids can eat, or they’re skipping meals because they can’t afford to eat more than once a day. So we started doing some research on how we could mitigate that.”

The community college opened Arty’s Pantry, an on-campus resource for food and supplies available on the school’s Greeley, Windsor, Fort Lupton and Loveland campuses.

In the past five years, as Aims leadership noticed an increasing need to address hunger among the student population, the college initiated a number of events and programs designed to help. From free cooking demonstrations to providing students with a $20 Walmart gift card each week during the pandemic to an on-campus free food and supply pantry with an online ordering system,

Arty’s Pantry partners with Weld Food Bank and offers students an array of items such as canned tuna, pasta and sauce, coffee, shampoo, tampons and condoms — all for free. Students can place one order per week and receive 15 credits to use to stock up on goods they may need.

Arty’s averages about 150 orders per week, Schulz said.

The food pantry started in 2018 and expanded to online ordering with no-contact pickup during the pandemic. As the need has grown, so has the pantry, said Schulz, who has applied for grants to help keep it stocked.

“One of the main things I want to focus on is breaking the stigma of using this resource,” Schulz said. “There’s nothing wrong with using this resource if you need it. It’s like financial aid for food.”

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