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SLU opens first food pantry to help feed hungry students

Saint Louis University Dean of Students Mona Hicks unloads donations at the soon-to-open Billiken Bounty food pantry on the university's campus.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Saint Louis University Dean of Students Mona Hicks unloads donations at the soon-to-open Billiken Bounty food pantry on the university's campus.

Saint Louis University has announced it’s opening a food pantry to serve its students who lack access to healthy food.

At lunch on a given weekday, students have no fewer than 18 different restaurants on campus to find lunch. Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Subway and Qdoba are all visible on-campus brands. Clubs seeking members put pizza and cupcakes on display to lure potential recruits. In an atmosphere so saturated with food, many would find it hard to believe students are going hungry.

But up to 10 percent of the university’s students don’t have regular access to healthy food, SLU Dean of Students Mona Hicks estimated.

Next week, SLU will open a food bank for hungry students. It joins the University of Missouri - St. Louis and St. Louis Community College, which already have food pantries in place.

“We’re hearing and encountering more students who are … just really struggling financially where they’re not able to access food,” Hicks said. “Or they’ve made a decision to buy new glasses or something significant for a car to have access to a job, which has limited their access to food.”

The Billiken Bounty food pantry will be stocked with food and hygiene items donated by students and staff. An early walk-through showed jars of peanut butter, canned vegetables and tampons and pads in paper baskets.

Hicks expects student-led philanthropy organizations to ask area shops and restaurants to donate leftover food. She said her office is also planning to ask food services company Sodexo to see if it could donate single-serving meals.

Hicks said she didn't realize how prevalent hunger was among students until she began to listen to students discuss their worries. Many the people at SLU are “non-traditional” students supporting families, working part-time or returning to school after a hiatus.

“They may not be living on campus and they may have one or two jobs, and their obligations may be more significant than the 16 credit hours they take,” Hicks said.

The university has long focused on a students’ ability to pay for classes, Hicks said. But the university often hasn’t considered other costs, such as food.

“Most of our constructions around financial aid are their ability to pay, but not their ability to live,” Hicks said. “It’s incumbent on us as a Catholic institution and teaching to wholeness to think about that.”

Project Coordinator for Mizzou’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security Bill McKelvey agreed with Hicks that hunger on college campuses often goes unseen. There isn’t a lot of national data available about college student hunger, buta recent survey of 66 colleges and universities found more than one-third of college students who responded had experienced food insecurity in the past month, he said.

As college gets more expensive, students get pinched in other ways, McKelvey said.

“They don’t necessarily have the resources to provide all of their needs that they would require at college,” McKelvey said. “The cost of college is more expensive than it used to be, so resources they do have are being stretched thinner.”

There are more than 600 member pantries of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, including 11 in Missouri, according the organization’s website.

Other schools such as Washington University have joined programs in which students can donate their meal points  — or “swipes” — to others in need.

While those efforts might help students in the short term, administrators need to have conversations about college affordability and financial aid to address the problem of student hunger, McKelvey said.

“They’re a stop-gap solution,” he said. “My estimate is they’re not going to solve the problem of student hunger. I think that’s a much larger discussion.”

SLU officials plan to survey students this year to learn more about their food needs. They also hope to use the food pantry as an entry point for students to discuss financial aid services and student counseling.

The Billiken Bounty food pantry will open Monday. It will be open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on the third floor of the Busch Student Center.

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.