BEMIDJI -- From an outside perspective, many college students may appear financially secure, with access to housing, food and transportation. According to Nina Johnson, director of Bemidji State University’s Hobson Memorial Union, this is often not the case. Many students are on the brink of financial instability and just one unfortunate situation away from going hungry.

“It only takes one car repair or one really expensive textbook or just extreme cold like we saw last winter -- and they’re put in a position to make a choice -- do I pay my heat bill or do I buy groceries?’” she said.

This issue of food insecurity is now being formally addressed at BSU. After years of an informal system of “leave what you can, take what you need,’ boxes, the university has a new food pantry accessible to students in the Hobson Memorial Union.

Johnson has been a major force behind the project.

“I just kept finding myself in these conversations with staff and faculty asking ourselves, ‘How do we meet this food insecurity need?’ or ‘How do we address this issue?’ and so there’s just a group of us that finally said, 'Well, why don’t we just sit around the table and try to figure this out?'” she said.

A committee to address food insecurity was formed, and a number of ideas have come to fruition.

“It’s not enough, it’s never enough, but it’s a start,” she said.

Johnson described food insecurity as a silent issue, because students formerly had to self-identify in order to receive help, something many are unwilling to do. Due to this, it’s hard to know how much need there is, she explained.

‘It’s a silent issue, people don’t often talk about it, and we realized that a lot with our own campus” she said.

Annually between 30-35% of BSU students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are Pell Grant eligible, meaning they are defined to be low-income and in high financial need.

"In the fall semester of 2018, three of our students facilitated research for their Marketing Research course investigating financial needs of Bemidji State University students. They received 285 responses to their survey. More than 40% of respondents indicated that they were not able to afford food daily -- 11 respondents indicated that they “almost never” or “never” could afford food daily," Johnson said.

The start of something bigger

Addressing food insecurity became a priority after biology professor Debbie Guelda starting placing a box labeled “leave what you can, take what you need,” outside of her office. This sparked a campus-wide movement.

Faculty and staff witnessed growing support for and use of these so-called “care boxes.” These boxes, located in public spaces on both BSU and Northwest Technical College campuses and stocked through free-will donations from the campus communities, provided students with access to food and toiletries.

After opening the pantry, the boxes were consolidated and Johnson and other volunteers went shopping to fill in the gaps.

Modeled after a similar food pantry at Bemidji High School, the pantry is housed in a former supply room located near the Hobson Memorial Union’s information desk. The space is easily accessible but also offers some privacy for those who use it.

The food pantry is free and students are welcome to use it anonymously. Patrons can visit anytime that the Hobson Memorial Union is open. Since the use of the pantry is kept private, in order to help determine how often it is being used and which items are in demand, visitors are asked to sign out on a clipboard which items were taken.

Win-win situation

Not only are those in need of food being helped, programs such as the food pantry can be helpful in saving food that might otherwise be wasted.

Johnson said the pantry is partnering with the university’s dining services provider, Aramark, in order to find a use for food that is near its sell-by-date or won’t be used over school breaks.

Also in the university’s contract with Aramark, BSU is offered a certain number of free meals for quality assurance purposes. Johnson said they have plans to use these meals for students who are food insecure in a program they’re calling, “Swipe Out Hunger.”

Funding and donations

Funding for the food pantry and its upkeep came largely from the United Way of Bemidji Area.

The pantry will be maintained by students and Hobson Memorial Union staff, with food purchased using gift cards contributed by the United Way. BSU Dining Services, the Sustainability Office and the campus community will also provide supplementary food donations.

“The conversation with United Way offered us resources but, maybe more importantly, helped us realize our goal was achievable,” Johnson said.

Food and hygiene supply donations will also be accepted at Hobson Memorial Union information desk.

BSU isn’t alone in its attempt to help food insecure students. Recent efforts have begun at NTC as well.

This year, the United Way provided NTC with $400 in gift cards to help ensure NTC’s student lounge, “The Roost,” can remain stocked with sandwich materials and snacks. NTC can request additional gift cards, if needed.