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Help for hungry students: UND opens food pantry

Kristi Okerlund, assistant director of student involvement and leadership at UND, shows the new Food for Thought food pantry in the Memorial Union. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A small gray office space on the third floor of UND's Memorial Union is stocked with typical college student sustenance: cereal, Knorr Rice Sides and microwavable packets of mac and cheese line the shelves.

Among the study snacks are also cans of beans, vegetables and meat, bags of rice and quinoa, toothpaste and soap. This is the new Food for Thought Pantry, available for use by all UND students.

The Food for Thought Pantry opened its doors in April. Students are able to use the pantry once a day, five days a week. Though the pantry will typically be open for specified hours on weekdays during the school year, it is open only by appointment during the summer. Students are able to choose the supplies that meet their needs, within the pantry's per-student limits.

According to Kristi Okerlund, assistant director of student involvement and leadership, hunger can be a silent problem on college campuses. Fortunately, campus food pantries are becoming more common.

"It's something that we don't always know about," Okerlund said. "We don't know what our students are experiencing as they come into our office so the more services, the more information that we have, the better. I know from my colleagues that food insecurity has always been an issue."

A study published by the American Educational Research Association in 2017 found that data from more than 30,000 college students indicated that approximately half are food insecure. Okerlund said the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership was always interested in creating a program to help needy students, but lacked a location and funding.

In the fall, Student Government gave $5,000 in student fee money to the office for the establishment of the pantry.

"This is their project," Erik Hanson, student body president, said. "We're there to contribute and help them put the groundwork in so it can be sustainable."

Okerlund said she is optimistic about the pantry's ability to sustain itself on donations from campus and the greater community.

"We have over 240 student organizations on campus," Okerlund said. "Many of them like to do service projects."

She also said the response from faculty has been "overwhelming."

In addition to the pantry, UND Dining Services has established the Swipe it Forward Program, through which students with meal plans can donate their extra meals and unused "Dining Dollars."

Currently, the pantry is not seeking partnerships with other food pantries in the region because it would require them to carefully track the demographics of users.

"We want it to feel like an easy welcoming process," Okerlund said about the experience of using the pantry, which currently only requires the swipe of a valid student ID card.

However, Okerlund does not think the idea of future partnership is impossible. As the pantry grows, she expects to adapt to the needs and wants of students.

"Our goal with opening the food pantry is that as students come in, if they do visit on a regular basis, that we get to know them, we get to know their needs so that we can help them holistically as a student," Okerlund said. "It's very hard to be academically successful when you're hungry."