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Campus & Community

Survey Finds Food Insecurity Among Terps

With New Gifts, Campus Pantry Plans Major Expansion to Serve Community

By Sala Levin ’10

Illustration of food in a heart-shaped bowl

Illustration by Jason Keisling

A new survey found that 20% of UMD students were food-insecure within the previous 12 months. The expansion of the Campus Pantry is one step toward addressing the issue.

A new survey of UMD students confirms what volunteers at the Campus Pantry already know: Many Terps are in need of food.

Led by Yu-Wei Wang, research director and assistant director of the university’s Counseling Center, the survey found that 20% of University of Maryland students were food-insecure—meaning lacking consistent access to nutritious foods—within the previous 12 months.

That’s up from the 15% found in 2015, when a pilot study led by Assistant Professor Devon Payne-Sturges and Professor Amelia Arria in the School of Public Health surveyed 237 undergraduate students. The new number is significantly lower than the national rate on college campuses—a study this year by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 41% of students at four-year universities are food-insecure, but it’s still cause for concern at Maryland.

“Our study shows that there is a great need for a systemic intervention and coordinated efforts to alleviate food insecurity and eliminate hunger at UMD and universities at large,” wrote Wang and her collaborators, Tiana Cruz, research analyst at the Counseling Center, and Leah Bush M.A. ’16, former graduate research assistant at the Counseling Center.

The survey results were released just as plans ramp up to expand the Campus Pantry, housed in a 310-square-foot conference room in the basement of the University Health Center. Two new pledges totaling $600,000—an anonymous $500,000 gift and $100,000 from UMD parents Troy and Danielle Gregory—will help increase its footprint, its privacy for clients and its offerings.

“We want to make sure we can get as many resources and as much information to the students as possible, so these new features will really enhance the ability of students to … get what they need,” said Allison Lilly Tjaden, assistant director of new initiatives for Dining Services.

Filling students’ bellies is critical to them fulfilling their educational goals. Wang’s survey, which was sent to 22,745 undergraduate and graduate students and garnered 4,901 responses, found that food-insecure students reported higher levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness than their peers. They also generally had lower GPAs and were more likely to withdraw from the university before finishing their degrees, compared to food-secure students.

In-depth interviews with 23 students provided insight into the experiences of food-insecure students. One interviewee said they were “so stressed because you always have to think about the budgeting, always think about … how to get food, where to get it cheaper … rather than spending the time studying your subject, studying academically.”

Those likeliest to experience food insecurity were students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, first-generation college students, racial or ethnic minority students, international students, students with an immigrant background, transfer students, students with a disability and transgender/gender-nonconforming students.

Since 2014, the student-run Campus Pantry has provided free food items and ingredients to Terps. Operated by Dining Services, it has seen a steady increase in use: In its first year of operation, 158 people visited a total of 338 times; in the 2018–19 academic year, 790 clients visited 2,559 times.

The Campus Pantry’s new space—just around the corner in the Health Center—will be 1,227 square feet, and will have more storage space, new refrigerated cases for perishable items like dairy products and produce from Terp Farm, meeting space where staff can meet one-on-one with clients and kitchen space to show clients how to make meals out of various ingredients.

A new separate entrance will also increase the comfort of potential clients who want to visit the pantry discreetly. (Currently the Pantry is only accessible through the Health Center.) An independent entrance that’s open longer hours than the Health Center can also help staff evaluate the pantry’s optimal operating hours by determining when clients (many of whom have jobs in addition to their academic load) have free time to visit.

The expansion is a critical step in broadening the Campus Pantry’s reach, the team said. Food-insecure Terps agree that the pantry and the survey of food insecurity on campus are necessary steps toward addressing the issue.

“I felt that my voice was heard,” said one survey respondent. “And that the university is doing something to make sure that students who don’t have access to meal plans have some sort of help.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.