Students who show up at the Campus Pantry typically are in search of ingredients—pastas, cereals, canned vegetables to supplement their meager diets. But in dire cases of hunger, what they most need is a meal right now.

The growing recognition of the variety of challenges faced by food-insecure students led to the launch last week of the Emergency Meal Fund. A partnership between the Student Government Association and Dining Services, the program offers 10 meals in any of the university’s three dining halls to students in crisis.

“This provides an immediate solution to students facing emergency instances of food insecurity,” said Doron Tadmor, chief of staff at the SGA, who came up with the concept. “It provides meals for students who haven’t eaten over the weekend or in the past few days.”

It might seem incredible that students on the University of Maryland campus come to class hungry. But in a study by the University Counseling Center, released in March, 20 percent of the nearly 5,000 undergraduates and graduates who were surveyed reported that they were food-insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to safe and healthy foods.

Students who identified themselves as food-insecure also were likely to report a number of other challenges such as physical health problems, lower self-esteem, anxiety, depression, anger and loneliness. Studies have found that food insecurity may also have implications for college students’ academic performance, retention, and graduation rates, as students struggle to concentrate, miss or fail assignments or even withdraw from college.

The Campus Pantry, based in the University Health Center, works to alleviate this problem, counting more than 4,000 visits since its 2014 opening. But Allison Lilly Tjaden M.P.H. ’12, Dining Services' assistant director for new initiatives, who helps run the pantry, says there’s still a gap in services for students in the most desperate situations. 

The SGA has allocated $5,000 to create an emergency fund in the dining halls, and Dining Services is pitching in to subsidize a total of 166 “swipe” cards this academic year.

Students who may need a card—or more than one, in certain cases—can contact the Campus Pantry, Student Crisis Fund or the office of Colleen Wright-Riva, director of Dining Services (301.314.8054). Staff professionals at any one of them can also steer students to the other resources.

“This is a great example of how students can work collaboratively with staff and departments to help their fellow students,” Tjaden said. “That’s been really inspiring to me.”