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Amid COVID-19 pandemic, food pantry usage among UW-Madison, MATC students continues to grow
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Amid COVID-19 pandemic, food pantry usage among UW-Madison, MATC students continues to grow

UW Food Bank 1

UW-Madison's student-run food pantry, Open Seat, distributes Thanksgiving food boxes for the first time in the group's history. 

Thousands of UW-Madison students travel home this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families.

But some students are staying put in Madison. For those who come from overseas, COVID-19 travel restrictions make returning home difficult. Others fear the risk of traveling home may put their families’ health in jeopardy. And some students cannot afford the cost of returning home or have an unstable home life and wish to remain in Madison.

Sensing an increased number of students sticking around campus for the holiday and noticing heightened demand at the university food pantry, student organizers coordinated the pantry’s first holiday food drive. About 100 students placed orders for Thanksgiving groceries, which they pick up this week.

Open Seat, UW-Madison’s student-run food pantry, estimates those hundred orders will feed 270 people. That’s in addition to the 246 students who visited the pantry earlier this semester, according to Julia Gutman, a senior studying social welfare who also serves as the pantry’s distribution director.

UW Food Bank 2

UW-Madison seniors Danielle Wendricks and Julia Gutman, who help staff Open Seat, prepare Thanksgiving meal packages Monday for distribution on East Campus Mall.

Since the pandemic arrived last spring, Open Seat has seen an uptick in student visits. In the spring 2018 semester, the pantry recorded 137 visits. The following spring, it tallied 99. In the spring 2020 semester, the pantry reported 288 visits.

Madison Area Technical College is also seeing more students stop by its food pantry.

A national report indicates the problem of “food insecurity” — having limited or uncertain access to food — is becoming more serious and widespread on college campuses because of the pandemic and its economic effect on students, some of whom lost their jobs.

A survey released over the summer by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found 38% of students at four-year universities and 44% at two-year universities faced food issues in the previous 30 days. Those statistics are up from 33% and 42%, respectively, in fall 2019.

More than 38,000 students from 54 schools completed the survey in the spring. Neither UW-Madison nor MATC, also known as Madison College, participated, though Milwaukee Area Technical College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College did.

UW Food Bank 3

UW-Madison senior Danielle Wendricks serves as internal director of Open Seat. She slips a celery stalk into a bag of ingredients students will use to make stuffing.

Open Seat organizers came up with the idea to host a Thanksgiving food drive for students after reading reports about how the annual Goodman Community Center was seeing a record-breaking surge in demand from families requesting Thanksgiving baskets this year.

Student staff asked pantry-goers if they needed a meal over the holiday to supplement what they received in a normal week.

“There was definitely a need,” Gutman said of their informal queries.

In another new UW-Madison initiative, the Wisconsin Union teamed up with the Dean of Students Office to provide individual-size Thanksgiving meals for any student in need. The idea came from staff who wanted to show their support for students during this challenging year. Thirty-eight students requested meals, university spokesperson Darcy Wittberger said.

MATC demand

Madison College student health educator Denise Holin recorded more than 300 visits to the food pantry this fall — up from about 250 at this point last school year and during a semester when far fewer students are on campus because 70% of classes are fully online.

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“I would say the need for the food pantries has definitely increased,” Holin said. “Even as the college prepares for a shutdown with limited access after Thanksgiving, the need remains to help students fight food insecurity.”

Though nearly all classes will move online after the Thanksgiving break, the food pantry will remain open until Dec. 17 and reopen in January when the spring semester begins, she said.

The biggest barrier for Holin during the pandemic has been continuing to educate students about healthy eating and community resources from afar. Inside each grocery bag, she slips in fliers about health insurance, food stamps, other nearby food pantries and, if available, other household items, such as cleaning products or laundry supplies.

Providing dignity

Because of COVID-19, UW-Madison’s food pantry shifted from a drop-in style of selecting food to providing pre-packed boxes of food to students.

“One of the things we’ve been missing out on during the pandemic is the dignity of picking out your own food,” pantry outreach director Izzy Boudnik said. “There is definitely a stigma that still exists for students to come to the food pantry. Something that makes them feel like they have a little more control is picking out what they want. It can be off-putting to be handed something that someone else picked out for you.”

The Thanksgiving drive helped restore some dignity, she said. Students picked in advance the dishes they wanted to prepare. Options included green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, a cranberry dessert and cornbread.

Open Seat staff bagged the ingredients into grocery bags with accompanying recipes. The food was donated from Second Harvest and an Army ROTC food drive. The pantry, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this winter, also bought some food with donations it has received.

Pointing the way

Samantha Cailey, a senior studying biology, knows all too well the stigma associated with food pantries. She started a group called First-Generation Student Success in the fall of 2019 for students who are the first in their families to go to college.

First-generation students are more likely to face food insecurity. A common question Cailey receives is where a student who cannot afford groceries that week should go.

“When they do ask about it, we know it’s a serious situation,” she said.

Cailey directs them to a variety of resources. The first one on her list is almost always Open Seat.

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A survey released by Temple University found 38% of students at four-year universities and 44% at two-year universities faced food issues in the previous 30 days.

A survey released by Temple University found 38% of students at four-year universities and 44% at two-year universities faced food issues in the previous 30 days.


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