By Stephanie L. Smith
Tucked away in a storage room in French Hall is the Bearcats Pantry, which provides non-perishable food to University of Cincinnati students who struggle with hunger and need immediate help.
Coordinated by McMicken College of Arts and Sciences senior assistant dean Lisa Holstrom, the food bank was created last fall by the staff of the Arts and Sciences department with donations collected by faculty.
“It was really a labor of love among the staff that support students and see students, and the faculty have been incredibly generous,” said Holstrom.
Students needing assistance can visit the front desk located on the second floor of French Hall from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday where they are escorted to the food closet and handed a shopping bag to stock up with food to get them through one or two days.
Dining vouchers to Center Court and Kroger gift cards are also available.
After leaving the Bearcats Pantry, students are provided with information on how to connect with Hamilton County Jobs and Family Services to apply for food stamps and local food banks designed to serve long term needs such as the St. George Food Pantry located at Dennis Street off Calhoun Street behind Corryville Catholic School.
Unlike traditional food pantries where those needing assistance must provide identifying information such as name, address and proof of income for tracking purposes, the Bearcats Pantry is discreet and anonymous. No M numbers are asked to be shown or email addresses collected.
“Our concern is you say you’re hungry, let’s get you some food. It’s not my job to judge whether you really need it or not,” Holstrom said.
Since its opening, it is estimated that the food bank has served between 20 to 30 students.
“A&S alone has 7,000 undergrads, so I worry about the students that we’re missing,” said Holstrom.
A committee headed by dean of students Denine Rocco was recently formed to address food insecurity on UC’s campus and how to address it comprehensively.
Key members of the committee include Holstrom, Daniel Cummins (assistant dean of students), Nicole Ausmer (interim director of Student Activities and Leadership Development), Nicole Mayo (director of student affairs), Brandy Reeves (director of the Student Wellness Center), and Kathy Brown (director of the Center of Community Engagement).
The committee is focused on developing resources at this stage. Nicole Ausmer said, “It was agreed around the table that we have a lot of UC students, a lot of Cincinnati natives that attend the university. Food insecurity is very high in the city, so one can assume that some of that is coming onto our campus.”
According to the 2014 Map the Meal Gap report, Hamilton County has a population of 806,631 with 18.6 percent of those residents as being food insecure. The Columbus Dispatch confirms “the national food insecurity rate was 14.3 percent between 2012 and 2014.”
“The thought that food is a barrier for someone being successful, this thing that’s a necessity, it’s necessary to eat. It’s not even negotiable. You have to eat to live. And then the shaming that comes with it,” Ausmer said, pointing out those who question others eating at McDonald’s instead of eating healthy. “A burger is a dollar versus fresh fruits and vegetables that can add up very quickly. We have to get rid of that shaming of what people eat versus what they need.”
The committee hopes one way to combat the stigma of food insecurity and to get word out about the Bearcats Pantry is by doing a food drive with student groups to support those in need on and off campus with 25 percent of the collection going to the campus food bank and 75 percent going to food banks off campus.
“You’re supporting your peers, and seeing that there’s someone right next to you who could be food insecure, but you are also actively engaged in the City of Cincinnati and realize that our food insecurity numbers are well above the national average,” said Ausmer.
Other ideas by the committee include a discussion with St. George Food Pantry to make their hours more flexible for students; partnering with Dining Services to provide additional dining hall vouchers; providing money on Bearcat Cards; and working with UC Sustainability to offer leftover food from UC Food Services’ Grand and Go meal program, dining halls and events to all students.
“Somebody called it a Band-Aid,” Lisa Holstrom said. “It’s not a Band-Aid, it’s a bridge. It’s a bridge to longer term support.”