Iowa public universities handle increased need from students facing food insecurity

By: - November 20, 2023 6:57 pm

The SHOP food pantry at Iowa State University is working to meet increased need. (Photo courtesy of Iowa State University)

A half hour before Iowa State University’s food pantry was ready to open, a small group of students had already gathered outside, ready to pick up groceries and other necessities.

Doctoral candidate Mobina Amrollahi worked on her laptop in the hallway. She was hoping to get tofu and canned goods from The SHOP as a supplement to the groceries she buys. Frederick Osei, also a doctoral candidate, wanted to grab protein and spaghetti if he could.

SHOP Co-president Sarah Schroeder said lines aren’t an unusual sight, and the pantry’s size doesn’t help. On days when students know the pantry has been restocked, they’ll see hundreds come through in a couple of hours.

“You walk down that really long hallway from the front desk, and there’s times that our line is to the stairs that you walk down,” Schroeder said. “So we do see lines, especially during certain hours throughout the week, like we have definitely busy hours in which there will be large crowds waiting outside.”


Like Schroeder, leaders of food programs at the University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa are seeing large volumes of students come through. As costs of living and higher education continue to climb, Iowa’s public universities are seeing more and more students seek out programs to help them put food on the table while juggling school, work and other responsibilities.

Resources on campus

The SHOP at Iowa State University offers shelf-stable and perishable food to campus, as well as hygiene items and other necessities, Mondays and Wednesday through Friday. At the University of Iowa, the Food Pantry at Iowa is open to anyone with a university ID Tuesday through Friday. The University of Northern Iowa’s Panther Pantry offers food, hygiene and cleaning products to students Monday through Thursday.

Each of the universities’ food pantries are seeing increased usage year-over-year, causing them to try to increase stock and limit how much can be taken if needed.

In August 2022, the Food Pantry at Iowa saw 660 visits and gave away 6,539 pounds of food. In August of this year, it saw 990 visits and went through 11,250 pounds of food.

The SHOP at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa’s Panther Pantry have also seen increases in students stopping by to grab items, with The SHOP jumping from 1,020 visits in September 2022 to 1,884 visits in September 2023 and the Panther Pantry having a 17% increase in unique students from this fall to last.

Last school year, University of Northern Iowa Associate Director of Student Involvement and Event Services Connie Hansen said the pantry saw 550 unique students. Usage of the pantry has been a steady increase since it opened in 2019.

Beyond food pantries, the universities also offer programs to get students access to dining halls and emergency funds.

The University of Northern Iowa started a new program this fall called Panthers Against Hunger, which allows students to donate up to $20 of their dining dollars for students to get a hot meal. Iowa State University’s Give a Swipe program lets students donate flex meals or dining dollars to other students in need of meal assistance.

The University of Iowa’s Hawkeye Meal Share program creates a pool of unused dining hall guest passes, which are distributed to students who apply. They can receive up to 14 meals through the program.

Each university also has emergency funds, which students can apply for to get help meeting their expenses.

Sometimes these resources aren’t enough. University of Iowa Basic Needs Coordinator Steph Beecher said students who already use the pantry and meal voucher program will come to her looking for more sustainable aid, but it’s just not available.

“We’re kind of trying to scramble and find resources and honestly, there’s just times where we’re like, there’s nothing else we can do,” Beecher said.

Tracking increased need

University of Iowa professor and researcher Katharine Broton said long-term trend data on basic needs insecurity isn’t really available, but what can be tracked is rising prices of higher education and financial aid falling behind.

Less state investment in higher education has prompted colleges to consistently hike tuition, and financial aid offerings have failed to fill the gap.

Iowa’s regent universities raised tuition for the third year this spring, with in-state undergraduates paying 3.5% more and varying increases for out-of-state undergraduates. University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa increased tuition for in-state graduate students by 3.5% as well, and Iowa State University brought it up by 4%.

In the past, students were able to work their way through college, but that’s not the case now. Students are dealing with higher costs of living and food as well as education due to inflation and wages not rising to combat it.

“These problems really are stemming from the high price of college attendance, limited need-based financial aid that has not kept up with the rising price of college attendance, and the wages that students are able to earn and the increased precarity of low-wage workers in our economy,” Broton said.

Increased usage of food insecurity resources could also be due to higher visibility and availability of programs. The University of Iowa relocated its food pantry to a larger and more visible space in the basement of the Iowa Memorial Union this August, and Basic Needs Manager Faith Surface said the number of visitors has jumped from around 100 a week to 100 a day.

“I think the need has always been there,” Surface said. “We’re just now more accessible.”

Finding solutions

Despite universities expanding their food access program for those in need, Broton said resources like food pantries and meal vouchers don’t actually solve the problem of food insecurity.

“I have a colleague who often says we will not be able to ‘food pantry’ our way out of this,” Broton said. “Food pantries are essential resources in our communities, but you know, they’re not designed to end hunger.”

Solutions targeting how students pay for college, as well as increased access to public benefits, would have an indirect impact on food insecurity as well as other areas of basic needs insecurity, Broton said, as they’re getting closer to longstanding, root problems rather than more immediate concerns.

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Having plans in place to address short, moderate and long-term issues is important, she said, as students are struggling with having food to eat and a place to stay today, but the fact that future students will experience this as well needs to be taken into consideration.

Beecher agreed, saying she’s advocating for systemic change. Recalling Audre Lorde’s work in the 1960s to establish community health care as they could not rely on the government for help, Beecher said the University of Iowa needs to put more funds to the pantry and help care for its students.

Students facing basic needs insecurity, with whom Broton has worked in her research, have reported trouble focusing and feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and a lack of belonging. Their attendance to class and coursework suffer while they’re trying to figure out where their next meal will come from.

However, food insecurity programs have been shown to help students feel better and stay on track with their schooling. A study Broton conducted on a meal voucher program put in place by a Boston community college found that students who started college at a high risk of food insecurity and were offered meal vouchers for the dining hall had a higher attainment rate than their peers who didn’t receive vouchers. She said similar studies looking at food pantries yielded similar results.

“Investing in basic needs resources isn’t just the right thing to do to help students, but it can actually improve a college’s bottom line as it improves retention rates and academic success outcomes,” Broton said.

Food Pantry at Iowa Basic Needs Manager Yunseo Ki said food pantries have been a lifeline for her in the past, when she was working long and odd hours trying to pay for her schooling and life. The support she received made her want to give that back, and was what made her start volunteering at the Food Pantry at Iowa.

“Anybody can walk in and need a helping hand to get through a rough patch in their life, and then they might just become inspired to help their fellow students and community members in the same way,” Ki said.


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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.