Why Rutgers-Camden has added a food pantry for students

Rutgers-Camden Student Health Services Director Neuza Maria Serra (L) and operations coordinator Madrid Moore at the food pantry at Rutgers-Camden on Wednesday, November 22, 2017.

For Rutgers-Camden sophomore Alfred Banks Jr., every penny matters.

About $400 goes toward monthly rent for his off-campus apartment and another $350 each semester for textbooks and course materials. That leaves little for one basic necessity: food. Sitting in class, Banks said his stomach sometimes rumbles.

But tucked away in a second-floor conference room in the Rutgers-Camden Student Center is a makeshift food pantry with ceiling-high shelves filled with a colorful array of canned goods meant to combat “food insecurity” that is largely hidden on campuses across the country.

“Everything is getting more expensive. It’s hard to afford food that’s actually healthy,” said Banks, an Africana Studies major and paid worker at Student Health Services who grew up in Camden.

In the corner of the room sits a mini-fridge, discovered dusty in the building’s basement, that holds perishables such as eggs, milk, and butter. Banks credits the pantry with saving him “from starvation.” Each week, he brings a bag of food back to his apartment to share with his roommates.

Of the 70 students who have used the pantry since its Oct. 3 opening, many share similar stories. Most are the first in their family to attend college and most need financial aid, said Madrid Moore, the student health services operations coordinator.

A national survey of 1,800 college students last year showed 48 percent face “food insecurity” and found a majority of first-generation students faced hunger. At least 25 percent of Rutgers-Camden students are the first in their families to attend college.

For them, small expenses are a big burden, Moore said. If a student’s paycheck arrives late or the gas tank is empty, he or she may skip dinner. Without cars or supermarkets within a walkable distance, many are forced to spend their money on less healthy options.

“All the students needing food come from different backgrounds. Some were kicked out of their houses, some are just out on their own for the first time, and some need to save money to pay for off-campus housing,” Moore said. “So many situations can bring someone here.”

Cash-strapped college students are stereotypically frugal, known to gravitate toward ramen noodles at the supermarket.

Still, administrators noticed the problem ran deep at Rutgers-Camden, a university situated in the center of New Jersey’s most impoverished city.

In past years, physicians at the health center noticed more students feeling dizzy. Staff members often stashed extra granola bars in office drawers for students lacking food and even referred some to local food pantries.

Then, earlier this year, Student Health Services heard that the Philadelphia hunger-relief nonprofit Philabundance was helping colleges open food pantries.

“We told them we wanted a food pantry, but didn’t have space. They said we could start it in a space as little as a drawer,” said Neuza Maria Serra, director of Rutgers-Camden Student Health Services.

After setting up donation drives and distributing fliers, monetary and item contributions began pouring in from students, staff, and local businesses such as ShopRite and Wegmans.

More than 700 meals were doled out in the past six weeks. The pantry is open three days a week, and students in need can show up weekly after showing their Rutgers ID card to grab anything from peanut butter to cereal. Students do not need to prove they are in need for access to the pantry.

Other South Jersey schools have debuted similar initiatives. Twenty miles away, at Rowan University, the school opened a food pantry called “SHOP” in March.

The idea grew from a campus-wide survey last year that showed at least 15 percent of undergraduates faced “food insecurity,” said Penny McPherson Myers, associate vice president for Diversity and Organizational Effectiveness. Since then, 220 individual students have visited Rowan’s pantry.

Around the end of the semester, organizers at Rutgers-Camden expect an influx of students who are running out of money on their school-issued meal cards, Serra said. And as the pantry’s popularity grows, she said, more stocked shelves will be needed.

“The issue of food insecurity has been known for a long time,” she said. “Students are incredibly grateful to be able to come here.”