Pitching In

Grassroots project ensures college students have enough to eat

It might be an upperclassman working a couple of jobs. Or a freshman piecing together scholarship money. Or a young married student balancing school, family and finances.

No matter their circumstances, they all face a similar struggle: Having enough affordable and nutritious food each day.

Food insecurity—the lack of consistent access to adequate foods—is a problem facing students on college and university campuses across the country. In fact, as many as one in three students experience food insecurity.

Arizona State University is no different. The student-led response is Pitchfork Pantry, which offers free nonperishable food to those in need at both the Tempe and downtown Phoenix campuses.

“I think a lot of students don’t realize they are in a food insecure situation because it’s so culturally accepted that students go without food, or eat pizza or Top Ramen,” says Becky Bender, a nutrition student at ASU and executive director of the downtown Phoenix Pitchfork Pantry. “But that shouldn’t be the case. If the students don’t get the nutrients they need, that can impact how well they do at school.”

A 2015 study from ASU bears that out. Researchers from both ASU and the University of Minnesota studied college freshmen living in dormitories at a large, diverse public university in the southwest United States, according to the American Public Health Association. They looked at the link between food insecurity, mental health, personal eating behaviors and perceptions of the campus-eating environment. Among the findings:

  • 34 percent of the students reported food insecurity during a 30-day period
  • 35 percent reported food insecurity during a 90-day period

What’s more, when students skipped breakfast and home-cooked meals—opting instead for fast food—they were more likely to experience anxiety and depression.

Pitchfork Pantry opened at the urging of then-student Stephanie Kauffman, who saw first-hand how food insecurity impacted the campus. A friend who worked and carried a full school load struggled to afford enough food to eat and eventually dropped out.

After a rocky start, Pitchfork Pantry is now open Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays in Tempe at Sonora Center residence hall, and Tuesdays and Thursdays in downtown Phoenix at Taylor Place residence hall. Students must show an ID and can take up to five items. Right now, pantry shelves are filled with nonperishable food such as peanut butter, tuna, and canned fruits and vegetables. Student leaders would eventually like to include fresh food.

The pantry also offers hygiene items such as shampoo and deodorant. When the occasional baby food or formula is donated, students with families snap it up. Some students need food for a particular week. Others may come every day, using the pantry as a de facto meal plan.

“We’ve had students who definitely weren’t sure where their next meal was going to be,” Bender says.

But the pantry offers more than free food. The goal is to connect students with other ASU resources, such as financial aid or health services, to get to the root of their problems.

Before Bender was involved in the pantry, she had a friend who typically ran out of food money at the end of the week. He applied for more scholarships, which gave him the extra financial support he needed.

“We want to find out what is going on,” Bender says. “ASU really does care about their students.”

Pitchfork Pantry relies on grants, financial donations and food drives from the community to keep the shelves stocked at the two locations. ASU sports teams, clubs and academic departments frequently support the pantries with food drives, and some professors even offer extra credit opportunities for students who drop off canned goods.


Story: Susie Steckner

Photos: Mark Lipczynski


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