When she was homeless and hungry, subsisting on donated cans of fruit cocktail and cream of mushroom soup, UW-Madison student Brooke Evans used to take the bus to a North Side food pantry every week, spending hours to make sure she would have enough to eat.
Now that she has a place to live and government assistance to pay for groceries, Evans is part of a group working to make things easier for hungry students by opening a food pantry on the UW-Madison campus.
Called the Open Seat, the pantry will serve a population of college students that advocates say often goes unnoticed, struggling to afford basic needs like housing and food while some of their peers pay four-figure monthly rents to live in luxurious apartment buildings.
“It’s clear that we need something like this,” said Kyla Kaplan, vice chairwoman of the Associated Students of Madison and another organizer behind the Open Seat. “Food insecurity is a bigger issue than people realize.”
In recent years, a growing number of colleges and universities have opened food pantries and offered other services to meet students’ basic needs.
More than 120 campuses had food pantries in 2014, according to the Washington Post, up from four in 2008.
The Open Seat, which will start serving students in February, is based on a similar pantry at UW-Stevens Point, Kaplan said.
It’s not clear how many students at UW-Madison struggle to pay for food, or how prevalent the problem is on college campuses nationwide.
But a recent survey by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which researches issues that affect college students from low-income families and is based at UW-Madison, found that 22 percent of students at 10 community and technical colleges across the country reported they skipped meals because they couldn’t afford to eat.
The lab, where Evans works, is working to collect data on UW-Madison students, she said.
Associated Students of Madison will spend about $20,000 from student segregated fees this year to hire staff and pay for operational costs at the Open Seat.
Student government rules bar organizations from using fee money to pay for food, so ASM officials have set out bins in campus offices and dorms to collect donations of canned food and other supplies to keep the pantry stocked.
The Open Seat will be located inside the Student Activities Center on East Campus Mall, and is believed to be the first pantry on the grounds of UW-Madison.
That difference is significant, Evans said.
There are several food pantries in Madison, including some in the Downtown area closer to campus than the one Evans used to visit. But hungry students, who must juggle their classes and often multiple jobs, might not have enough time to visit them, she said.
Being homeless and hungry meant that, on top of her coursework, Evans’ mind was occupied by more basic needs her classmates didn’t have to think about — like what she was going to eat that day or where she would sleep.
Having the pantry on campus, she said, will give students “the opportunity to live the most standard life, like the rest of their peers do.”
Evans is also working on other projects to support Badgers who are living in poverty, such as a plan to open an emergency shelter for homeless students in university housing.
Plenty of people understand how poverty affects children, she said, but those problems don’t end when someone turns 18, or enrolls in a university such as UW-Madison.
“You don’t automatically become middle class when you start college,” she said.