When college students can’t afford to buy groceries or often skip meals due to cost, they may struggle to focus in class or skip altogether. 

A national survey from fall 2020, in fact, reported that about three in five college students don’t have enough to eat.  

The on-campus food pantries available at many colleges are one support. They are especially needed as prices rise for necessities such as  groceries and personal hygiene products.  Grocery costs increased 7 percent nationwide from November 2021 to November 2022, according to the most recent federal estimates

“Students have been cleaning off our shelves of items that are more expensive, items that they can’t purchase on their own,” said Megan Ashwill, coordinator of the Lift Up Vikes! resource center and food pantry at Cleveland State University. 

To help meet the need — officials estimate the pantry distributed the equivalent of about 12,000 meals in the fall semester to members of the 14,580-student community  — Ashwill said she tries to prioritize stocking the most in-demand items, like fresh produce and cooking oils, even though those stretch the center’s $36,000 annual budget. 

A partnership with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank allows Ashwill and her staff of mostly work-study students to get many items at no cost. They can purchase items via the food bank that they can’t get for free. The pantry relies heavily on donations, too, and also applies for supplemental grant funding. 

And it’s not just food prices that are increasing. Hygiene products are expensive, too. Those don’t regularly get donated to the pantry, Ashwill said. A squat cabinet stocked with deodorants, sponges, soap, toothpaste and shaving cream tends to get wiped out quickly.

Forty-five percent of CSU’s students are eligible for Pell grants, meaning they’ve displayed “exceptional” financial need. 

The LUV food pantry was open for two winter-break shopping days. The long shelves along the pantry’s walls were neatly organized when Signal Cleveland visited during the first week of January. 

Lines of cream of mushroom soup cans held court underneath containers of yams. Across the room, bags of pancake mix found themselves with only one remaining neighbor on the next shelf: a box of frosted strawberry PopTarts. It’s a choice pantry, meaning students can select what they want versus receiving a prefilled bag. It’s first come, first serve when it comes to snagging the goods. 

About 80 students visited the pantry during that day, up from the typical 50 students during a break. International students, a growing population at the university, made up the majority of those 80 visitors.

There’s still a negative narrative about accessing, according to Alexia Miracle, a CSU junior who is the pantry’s student manager. She’ll be completing an internship at the LUV pantry this spring thanks in part to some additional funding the department secured. 

In an ideal world, she’d love to see the stigma of accessing this food pantry reduced. Miracle’s brainstorming some ideas for new events she hopes could help. There could be additional sessions about how to apply for government assistance and maybe an offering about how to use food as medicine, too. She hopes a new mural on the outside of the pantry may make it more inviting. 

“This isn’t about how people are viewing you,” said Miracle. “It’s about taking care of yourself.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.