Minnesota West fights food insecurity with pantry for students
About 48% of students at two-year colleges in America — and 34% of Minnesota West students — struggle with food insecurity.
WORTHINGTON — It’s difficult to study and earn good grades if the student trying to do those things is struggling to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis — a situation faced by about one-third of Minnesota West Community and Technical College students.
The school’s Worthington campus was first to open a food pantry in February 2019, and the other campuses and the center in Luverne followed suit by the end of April 2019.
“Students can go to those pantries and take whatever they need without asking any faculty or staff member,” said Linda Pesch, student services adviser at Minnesota West. “We didn’t want there to be any kind of barrier. It’s open to them whenever the building is open.”
In order to keep the food accessible, each campus bought a cabinet on rollers, so that a significant amount of food can be easily moved from location to location. The cabinets are placed in a very accessible location on each campus that isn’t so public that students taking food would be seen by their peers. The campuses have used additional space beyond their cabinets for their food pantry work as well, Pesch said.
So far, keeping the food pantry full remains a work in progress, Pesch said, and it’s been funded primarily with institutional dollars, including some student fees. Student government groups have helped provide funds for the food, and the college has asked for community donations, too. Some stimulus dollars have also been used to keep the pantries going.
Minnesota West partnered with Southwest Minnesota State University for a joint Americorps Vista position dedicated to working on basic needs and food insecurity, and also connected with the University of Minnesota to offer some very basic cooking classes.
Maya Bledsoe, academic advisor at Minnesota West, has just taken on the role of Student Basic Needs Coordinator.
What does ‘hungry’ look like?
Some students will ask for help, but many won’t. It’s not always easy to tell if a student is experiencing food insecurity, though data has shown that about 48% of students at two-year colleges do.
“Sometimes faculty members see a change in behavior in the classroom, and they might bring that student in or talk to that student,” Pesch said.
Sometimes no one knows, though, and that’s why Minnesota West is trying to get the word out to students about the food pantries, as well as some of their other programs designed to help them with basic needs.
For example, Minnesota West has the Blue Jay Emergency Fund, where students can apply for money when an emergency occurs that might stop them from getting to class, like a blown tire. When the school found out students were trying to write research papers on their cellphones, the school started a lending program for ChromeBooks.
Mental health services and telepsychiatry are available to students too, Pesch said.
While any student can experience food insecurity for a number of reasons, including lack of funds, lack of transportation or lack of time, surveys have shown that the college’s black, indigenous and people of color populations are most at risk, Pesch said.
Community college students often come from less affluent backgrounds and a majority of Minnesota West students in particular receive federal aid.
Some are young people just out of high school, but about half of Minnesota West students are nontraditional. Some are single parents; some have been laid off. There are even some students who have been incarcerated and are trying to get back on their feet, Pesch said.
“COVID has just wreaked havoc all over the place with inability to work, and then you’ve got inflation. Some of the healthier food items are grossly expensive these days,” she added.
The college is continuing to work with community organizations on holding collection events, and they’re working on a donation event of their own for the spring, through Minnesota West’s foundation, Pesch said.
They’ve also worked to form some partnerships with community food pantries, so they can avoid taking away from those services but ensure everyone’s needs are met.
During Christmas, the college had a giving tree initiative in which people could sponsor needed items for students, Bledsoe said, including food, warm clothing and technology.
How to help
All the campuses and the Luverne center will accept cash donations, as well as nonperishable food and hygiene products that aren’t out of date. That may include easy-to-make foods like microwaveable macaroni and cheese, canned goods such as fruits, veggies and soups, spaghetti sauce and noodles, any kind of beans, cereal and granola bars.
“Any assistance you want to give will be greatly appreciated,” Pesch said.
Bledsoe emphasized that hygiene products and baby items are in great demand, along with any convenient food that can be eaten on the go. Hygiene products students need include laundry detergent, deodorant, diapers and wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes and shampoo.
Sometimes students don’t own a can opener, so those can be helpful, and donors are encouraged to think about what might go with their donation and contribute that as well, like syrup with a box of pancake mix.
Each Minnesota West location is a bit different, so anyone interested in donating, or in hosting a collection event, should call Bledsoe at (507) 825-6816, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Minnesota West communications center to ask for a specific campus at (800) 658-2330.