University of Montana students, staff and faculty gathered Tuesday to celebrate the UM Food Pantry's first anniversary and hold a silent auction to offer more support to students facing hunger.
"I think a lot of people, unless they're living it right now, don't realize this problem exists," said Kat Cowley, UM Food Pantry student coordinator.
Cowley, who said she was food insecure as an undergraduate student, helped organize efforts to create the pantry after realizing that many students in Missoula and across the country face food insecurity. UM opened its on-campus food pantry in February 2019, and supporters celebrated its first year in operation this week near the pantry's central location on the first floor of the University Center.
A 2019 report called "College and University Basic Needs Insecurity" that surveyed 86,000 students at 123 higher education institution across the United States, including UM, found that 41% of students at four-year institutions reported experiencing food insecurity in the 30 days preceding the survey.
The study by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, also found that 44% of students at four-year institutions reported that they worried about running out of food, and noted that food and housing insecurity undermine academic success and college completion.
When the UM pantry first opened, it was located in a small office in the UC and only saw about 50 students visiting each month. Now, the pantry has expanded to a larger office located on the southwest side of the first floor of the UC that is open on Tuesdays from noon to 5 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
There is no application required for students to visit the pantry, which also has satellite locations at Missoula College Room 430, TRIO Student Support Services in the Lommasson Center, UM VETS Office, AISS (American Indian Student Services) Student Lounge, and the newest location in UM's School of Law.
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"Students, especially students that are also working and going to class, have very little free time … so having something that they can walk to right after class has been a big help for folks," Cowley said.
The UM pantries are now helping a couple hundred students each month, which has resulted in a need for more donations. At the anniversary celebration on Tuesday, attendees bid on items in a silent auction donated from local businesses and community members.
Shawn Grove, director of UM's Veterans Education and Transition Services Office, donated a 1986 framed DC Batman comic book called "Heroes Against Hunger" that he bought as a kid.
Grove said the satellite pantry at the VETS Office has helped students easily grab what they need while also maintaining their privacy because they have to interact with less people at the satellite office than at the main office.
Although some students worried about stigmas associated with food insecurity, Cowley said it's more common for students to worry that they're "taking something from someone else who might need it more."
"We always try to remind students that we will get more food," Cowley said. "Your need is important to you. We're not here to judge who needs what."
Cowley said the pantry is currently in need of monetary donations to purchase food, in addition to food donations — especially rice, peanut butter and canned protein, and canned, fresh or frozen fruits and veggies — that can be dropped at the main office any time.
"This time of year is kind of a donation desert, so we're really having to rely more and more on past donations and our ability to purchase food because people just aren't donating food at the same rate they do in the fall," Cowley said.