University of Montana opens food pantry for students in need

UM food pantry supervisor Kat Cowley participates in a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce during the grand opening of UM’s Food Pantry for students. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The University of Montana opened a food pantry for students Tuesday, offering non-perishable food and toiletries to those who need them.

UM Food Pantry supervisor and UM grad student Kat Cowley said the University Center will help manage the pantry, along with members of a newly formed Committee on Food and Housing Insecurity on campus.

A few years ago, UM and Missoula College faculty, staff and students realized that food insecurity was increasing on campus. Cowley was among those who started work on a solution.

The issue, she said, touches her on a personal level.

“Because our minimum wage is so low and our housing costs are so high, we’re seeing a lot of students having to put most of their income into their rent, I know that’s the case for me,” she said in an interview with the Missoula Current. “That often means that people, in having to save up for textbooks and other school supplies, food is the last thing they spend money on.”

The pantry, located at the West Atrium Desk on the first floor of the UC, has about 1,000 pounds of food, and students can take 5 to 10 pounds of food, as needed. No application is required, but students are encouraged to talk with Cowley and her team about their situation.

Kat Cowley shows off UM’s new food pantry. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Cowley struggled with buying groceries as an undergraduate student, and lost her home last spring. She said she understands what students are going through.

“I just really understood how hard it is to go through that on this campus and how it felt like, as a greater campus community, people just didn’t care,” she said. “There just weren’t resources available. So I wanted to make sure that we had resources and that I could be there to give my lived experience.”

A Wisconsin HOPE Lab report published in 2018 showed that 36 percent of university students nationwide were food insecure. A 2016 National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness study found that food insecurity caused 55 percent of students not to purchase a required textbook for class, 53 percent to miss a class, and 25 percent to drop a class.

“In addition to disrupting a student’s pattern of learning, food insecurity further affects students’ college experience and can be an underlying cause for other struggles, such as increased anxiety, deficits in social confidence and social activity. Being hungry or stressed about being hungry can affect and disrupt every area of a student’s life,” University Center director Adrianne Donald said.

Provost Jon Harbor is excited to see UM heading in the right direction when it comes to supporting students who are facing food insecurity. It’s a critical service, he said.

“If you’ve ever been hungry, it’s really hard to concentrate on other things when you’re wondering where your food is going to come from,” Harbor said. “So students who are food insecure, they’re going to have a much harder time doing well in their classes and can’t take advantage of the amazing experiences that we have here.”

Cowley said she hopes to get more hygiene product donations and in the long term, offer pantry items in a larger space.

Frances Beard, a student studying psychology at UM, used the food pantry before the event started, and was able to get a bagful of food and toilet paper. She currently lives with friends until she can find a place to live.

“Finding affordable housing has been a problem,” Beard said. “There’s a lot of kids out there who are in the same boat I am.”

The pantry hopes to use grant funds from the Montana Food Bank Network to purchase food from the Missoula Food Bank. Aaron Brock, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank, said many students visit his facility’s pantry each day.

“We know there are hundreds of students that visit our pantry,” Brock said. “If they can come here, then that’s filling a need that is real in this community. Hunger does not exist because there’s a shortage of food. There is more than enough food in this community, in this country, to feed every single person.”

The UM Food Pantry accepts both food and monetary donations, with details available online.

Mari Hall is a reporter with the Missoula Current and can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.