Catholic food pantry reaches out to students

When it comes to needing proper food and nutrition, Sister Maryann Schaefer said college students are sometimes a forgotten segment of the population.

Schaefer, of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, said students living in residence halls and on meal plans usually have the food they need, but as students get older and live more independently in apartments off campus, they can sometimes run into trouble paying for food.

The Center’s new program “Newman Shares!” food pantry was developed to meet this demand. The pantry, which opened on Sept. 11 in the Center, 604 E. Armory Ave., serves registered students of all ages and religious denominations.

Open every second and fourth Wednesday of each month, the pantry offers food and other necessities to both University students and Parkland Community College students. A separate pantry is scheduled to open at Parkland later this fall, but the “Newman Shares!” pantry will continue to serve both schools.

The idea for the pantry was introduced last September, Schaefer said. After speaking with local food pantries and a similar pantry at Michigan State University, the group’s project was officially planned in April with the intention of opening at the beginning of the fall semester.

The pantry can be accessed through the center’s Armory Avenue entrance. Students who enter are only asked for their student IDs.

When at the pantry, Schaefer said volunteers try to keep the process as confidential as possible.

“That’s the type of atmosphere we are trying to create so that they are not embarrassed,” Schaefer said. “(Make sure) there is nobody here to judge them or anything else. We’re just here to help you get through it.”

Julie Melton, the director of marketing and development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, said 45 percent of people ages 18 to 26 were living at or below the poverty level in 2012.

This includes college students who are living independently, working part time and paying for school. Schaefer said these students sometimes struggle to make ends meet, specifically when it comes to food.

“I think it’s just realizing that there is someone there that can help them,” Schaefer said. “And we don’t care what race, color, creed they are. You’re a student, you’re paying for tuition and you’ve got to have proper nutrition to study.”

When students enter the pantry, they receive shopping lists of the food and supplies offered to them. Additionally, those who come in are encouraged to choose healthier options like the pantry’s frozen meat and vegetables.

“That conversation goes on just to try to encourage them to try to stock their shelves up with nutritional stuff instead of just crackers, popcorn, chips and things like that even though they’re available,” Schaefer said.

Melton said having nutritious options are important, and the food bank is concerned with both the quantity and quality of the food students are receiving.

“There is definitely a parallel between good nutrition and being able to learn and focus and concentrate on their studies,” Melton said. “So when they are feeding themselves unhealthy foods that may be cheaper, you may not be getting the nutrition you need to let your brain fully function.”

The Newman pantry purchases much of the perishable goods it distributes from the Eastern Illinois Foodbank but also accepts food from donations from food drives.

To get involved in helping the food pantry, students can organize food drives and collect money. The pantry also has a volunteer base of about 62 students.

“Not only is there a need (for volunteers), but you can also see the positive impact that (your) time and effort is making in the lives of others,” said Joel Sarmiento, student volunteer and sophomore in Engineering.

Schaefer said the pantry has all the necessary equipment such as refrigerators and freezers, but it now faces other challenges like making students more aware of the pantry.

“I think one of the hurdles in getting the word out to students who need it is just finding the right communication channels,” Sarmiento said.

He said the group is hoping to help more people learn about the services the pantry offers is through word of mouth.

“(We’re) letting people know that it’s okay to ask for help. And I think that is one of the struggles and hurdles, but a great way for that to be done is to have their peers and anyone that does come in recommend to anyone else they know that, ‘they just ask if you’re a student, if you have an ID, and that’s it, they’re not going to pry, they’re not going to ask you to pray … they’re here to help,’” Sarmiento said.

Miranda can be reached at [email protected]