The pandemic grew a problem seen on college campuses for years - students fighting hunger.
As they struggle for food, they may also struggle academically.
"Ultimately that's what students are here for, they want to get a degree, they want to graduate. So, they are willing to sacrifice food in order to get their degree. That's the population this is really about," said Lisa Henry, Ph.D, a professor in the department of anthropology at the University of North Texas in Denton.
She started researching food insecurity on campus in 2014, about the same time the university was in the process of opening a food pantry on campus. Henry and her team talked to students to learn the reasons for food insecurity, how it impacted them and what resources would help.
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"There is a tremendous amount of shame and stigma among college students. In fact, it's one of the major themes of my research that came out without asking a question about same or stigma," she said.
"Yes, there are a lot of students who are out there just making it but these aren't the students who are just making it. These are the students who have a hard time socializing because they don't have the money to even go out and get one drink or one meal with their friends. They have a hard time socializing which makes them feel more isolated and more alone. And, there's a whole other layer of mental health that goes with this. Feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, stress these are really prevalent among food-insecure college students."
Students, though, felt like the choice to go to college led to their situation and were reluctant to seek resources offered by the state and federal governments.
"They are much more likely to accept food and aid from the university rather than from food pantries and soup kitchens that exist outside in the community," Henry said.
The UNT Food Pantry first opened in 2015 and has kept feeding students through the pandemic, shifting operations to contactless, curbside and pick-up only. And it's been a busy academic year.
"We've almost served 900 students in our pantry," said Delaney Farris-Dyer, a graduate assistant in the Dean of Students' office.
Farris-Dyer helps oversee the food pantry, makes sure students fill out the proper form, then fills the bags and gets them to students.
"We have a five- day meal bag which is more hearty products. We focus on proteins and making sure they can create meals. Then we have two additional bags which are short term and a snack bag," she explained.
A community garden means there are fresh vegetables. And, a fridge and freezer donated seven months ago brought more choices.
"Lately, we've been able to give out frozen proteins like chicken and pork, eggs and butter," she said.
In the brief interactions, Farris-Dyer hopes to show compassion and erase the stigma a student might have.
"If you're sick on campus, you would go to the student health and wellness center. and if you have a hunger need on campus, you come to the food pantry. That's why we're here," she said.
"The more the campus can be talking about food insecurity among students and talking about resources that exist, the less stigma students will feel," Henry said.
Henry published her initial research in 2019, hoping to help administrators understand what students are experiencing. She continues to research the topic and is now working with her students to explore how the pandemic changed the student experience with hunger.
“I think this is a really important conversation to have. People are living through this in secret, it’s not something that they share with a lot of people. What we’re not capturing is the people who didn’t come back to school at all," Henry said in a news release.