University food pantries stretch to stock items for international students

By: - October 18, 2023 2:17 pm

The Food Pantry at Iowa is working to offer items for students of all cultures in need. (Photo via the Food Pantry at Iowa)

Of all the goods the Food Pantry at Iowa offers University of Iowa students, staff and faculty, rice is one of the hardest to consistently stock. As a shelf-stable item that is a staple in cooking across the globe, rice, especially different varieties, is always in need, pantry staff say.

Food Pantry Basic Needs Manager Faith Surface said the pantry needs to ration rice in order to not run out before they can get more, and had one student tell her he would wait at the pantry until they restocked to claim some, as it was so important to his culture and diet.

“It’s something that undoubtedly, when we are disproportionately represented by minority groups and by international groups, we definitely need more of,” Basic Needs Manager Yunseo Ki said.

College food pantries are working with students, local businesses and other organizations to diversify their stock so students across all cultures can get the food they need.


International students make up almost half  of those who use  Food Pantry at Iowa, the University of Iowa’s food pantry. Surface said multicultural goods are the hardest to keep on the shelves due to demand, and sourcing them can be sometimes difficult and pricey. Staff try to offer items that are more universal, like the jasmine rice they mainly stock, but they also want to meet as many needs as possible, which requires a range of goods.

The majority of the pantry’s stock comes from HACAP, a nonprofit and food reservoir in Cedar Rapids, and Table to Table, a local food rescue program that distributes items from local stores and gas stations to food pantries. When purchasing items that they aren’t getting from donations or partnerships, Ki said staff will source from local cultural grocery stores to fill in gaps and get nutritious, multicultural food.

However, this can get difficult when they try not to spend too much, or when certain items are low in supply.

“Especially with international goods, the tariffs that they have to pay to bring stuff in, the cost of bringing international goods (here), is ridiculous,” Ki said. “I would say in terms of sourcing equitably and affordably, we do struggle.”

One concern that Iowa State University Food Security and Basic Needs Specialist April Lopez has heard from students is that the university’s food pantry, The SHOP, doesn’t stock enough culturally appropriate food.

According to a spring 2022 study conducted at Iowa State University, student focus groups said their well-being was hindered by “lack of access to affordable, nourishing, and culturally representative food particularly in campus food pantry and food availability programs.” She said they’re working to address this through partnerships with businesses like Pammel Grocery Store and Deli in Ames, which provides them with halal goods, which means they are permissible for Muslims.

International students make up the largest share of food pantry customers at Iowa State University, Lopez said, so having food that they would be comfortable and happy eating is a priority — especially as many international students don’t have access to all of the government aid that American students can utilize.

“We are kind of their sole source of resources,” Lopez said.

A lack of transportation can also bar students from getting the food they need, University of Northern Iowa Associate Director of Student Involvement and Event Services Connie Hansen said. Before the university opened its food pantry in 2019, community food pantries were the only option for food-insecure students, and many international students don’t have cars.

Now in its fourth year serving the University of Northern Iowa, staff at the Panther Pantry are surveying those who frequent the food pantry to see how they should expand what they’re offering. It’s been somewhat hit-and-miss with items like spices that they’ve sourced from a local Indian grocery store, with some getting taken immediately and others not claimed at all.

The pantry’s next steps include finding more local multicultural stores to partner with, Hansen said. In the meantime, she wants to make sure they’re stocking what people actually want and need.

Hansen said students have told her they’re grateful for the efforts to diversify the pantry’s shelves. She said students don’t want to potentially make stocking the pantry harder by inquiring about certain goods when they know sourcing items can be pricey or difficult, but she won’t waver from her goal of stocking the pantry with more attention paid to those who use it. Ki also said she’s made a huge push to make the Food Pantry at Iowa’s shelves more inclusive, with nothing but support from those around her.

“They don’t want to seem like they’re putting you out at all, they’re just so great,” Hansen said. “But we also remind them we want to make sure that we’re putting the right things in the right spaces.”


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Brooklyn Draisey
Brooklyn Draisey

Brooklyn Draisey is a Report for America corps member covering higher education. She previously worked for the Quad-City Times and The Gazette covering topics ranging from business to culture.