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Montana Universities Establish Food Pantries To Help Students Access Food

Metal shelves hold stacks of canned foods.
Associated Students of Montana State University-Northern
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Recent surveys by a few of Montana’s universities found more than a third of students don’t have reliable access to affordable food. Montana’s higher education community is trying to meet students’ needs.

Recent campus surveys found 32% to 40% of Montana college students reported skipping meals or going a day without eating, similar to rates seen on campuses across the country.

Chrystine Miller, student affairs and engagement director in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, says some may be surprised because the numbers are so high.

"I think what we see is likely a bit of an undercount, not just in Montana but across the country, because it is so hard to identify and hard to track among student populations," Miller says.

To meet these basic needs food pantries have become as much a part of Montana’s campuses as bookstores and laboratories. University of Montana Western, MSU-Northern and Montana Tech have recently joined Montana State University-Billings, Montana State University and University of Montana in establishing food pantries.

The Student Senate at MSU-Northern in Havre began the food insecurity discussion a year or two ago, acknowledging that the majority of their students have lower income backgrounds and can struggle to meet their monthly needs.

"A lot of them are on their own to make due every month with their finances and so we wanted to be sure there was something here to support them when them when there weren’t...or there wasn’t money or food available," says Amber Spring, a Counselor in Student Health Services at Northern and Student Senate co-advisor.

The pandemic has increased the number of students coming to the food pantry at UM-Western in Dillon, says Keeley Fitzgerald, program coordinator for Associated Students who run the pantry.

"Our goal is to make sure all of our students have the best environment for learning and they are happy and healthy in the education and environment," Fitzgerald says.

All campus pantries stock the usual nonperishables like soup, tuna, fruit, pasta and ramen. Some have refrigerators or freezers for perishable foodstuffs while others provide gift cards for perishable items. Some stock personal hygiene items like soap, toothpaste and razors, while MSU-Billings has diapers and school supplies.

The number of people who come to these pantries varies from month to month and campus to campus, from around 10 visits a month at MSU-Billings to 130 on average at MSU. Some schools such as Billings and Bozeman also allow faculty and staff in need to also use the pantries.

Funding also differs from campus to campus, with some supported by student fees. others receive monetary and food donations from student and community organizations as well as local food banks.

Spring with MSU-Northern says as students prepare for finals, helping with housing and food costs contributes to the success of students as they work to complete their degrees.

"Have their basic needs met so they can focus on academics and they are not worrying about where their next meal will come from," Spring says.

Many of these pantries will operate throughout the summer months as well.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.