Pantry at Parkland will focus on helping college students, their families

CHAMPAIGN — There's a bag of food in Parkland College Dean of Students Marietta Turner's office, and she keeps it there because she knows some students are going hungry.

Not just because they're skipping a meal now and then, but hungry because their cupboards at home are darn near empty.

One student who benefitted recently from Turner's grocery sack recently told her he didn't have any food at all, she recalls.

Just how many Parkland students are suffering from hunger is a number officials at the college say they don't have. But they've seen enough evidence to know there's a student hunger problem, and it's too large for Turner's compassion and office food supply to fix alone.

For more than a year, they've been working on a solution they hope will help: Parkland's own food pantry, set to open Dec. 11.

The new pantry is being built by students in the college's highway construction careers training program in a building at the south end of the Parkland campus, and it will be operated as a satellite of the Wesley Evening Food Pantry.

For those who may find it hard to believe college students can be food-challenged, Turner says she reminds people that this is the reality of a community college: Its students deal with "real life" every day.

Some of these students are juggling more than one job, are hard-pressed to make ends meet, and some are also supporting children, she says.

"I can tell you that a large percentage of our students get federal financial aid because they have to, and a large percentage of our students work because they have to," Turner adds.

Ramen noodle diet

One Parkland student looking forward to the new pantry opening is Daniel Munoz, a 21-year-old communications major from Lansing.

He lives on $10 worth of food a week, and each of his roommates contributes the same amount. It's all he can spare, because his part-time job barely covers his rent at $445 a month, he says.

Munoz says his parents help when they can, but they've been hit hard by the economy and are on food stamps themselves.

What does $10 a week buy? Munoz says he lives on canned soups, sandwiches and ramen noodles. No fruits or vegetables, because they're too expensive, he adds.

Along with many students like Munoz, there are hundreds of veterans at Parkland who could use Parkland's new food pantry, says Kristina Taylor, coordinator of veterans and military personnel student services.

Among them are 20 to 30 older homeless and unemployed veterans going to school on federal grants, she says.

Another group includes hundreds of veterans who start college unaware it's going to take months for veteran's benefits to kick in, Taylor says.

Parkland puts a hold on their tuition bills in these cases, she says, but these students quickly fall behind on rent, food and other expenses. And even when benefits start, she adds, many continue to struggle financially.

There are about 350 veterans enrolled each semester at Parkland, and getting this group to accept help from a food pantry is going to be a challenge because the military taught them to be self-reliant and solve their own problems, Taylor says.

"The problem with serving veterans is they're very proud, and they're very private," she adds. "Asking for help is not something they do."

Pantry plans

Parkland's pantry, to be called Wesley Pantry at Parkland, is being built in former fine-arts studio space in the "S" building.

R.J. Rowland, manager of the highway construction careers training program at Parkland, says students in the 12-week construction program and the session before it are doing all the interior work, have replaced a set of doors, and have done concrete work outside the building.

The goal is to have all the work complete by Nov. 26, when the current group is set to complete the program, he says.

For space-crunched Parkland, the building offers both some rarely available room — plus some privacy away from central campus for the food pantry users, Turner says.

The Wesley Evening Food Pantry, a program of Wesley United Methodist Church, will operate the pantry at Parkland from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month.

Most of the food for Parkland's pantry will be supplied by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, and fundraising is under way to help cover the cost, according to Wesley Evening Food Pantry Director Donna Camp.

The food is supplied free, but the foodbank helps cover its costs by charging a per-pound fee for storage and transportation for the food it supplies area pantries.

Camp predicts the Parkland pantry will serve as many as 1,000 students each day it is open, and feeding that many students will cost $5,000 to $10,000 a month.

"We're going to try and get the most nutritious food we can at the least amount of money," she says.

Needy students will be able to come in and get free staples such as bread, fruits, vegetables and nonperishables, Camp says.

There won't be any meat, unless it's canned, because Parkland's pantry won't have any refrigeration, she says, adding that might be possible later with grant funding.

The former director of grants and contracts at Parkland, Camp says she remembers conversations during her Parkland years about a need for food assistance among Parkland students back when the Wesley Evening Food Pantry was launched. She used to be surprised that more Parkland students didn't take advantage of the Wesley pantry, she says, but she realized later many students going to classes and then on to their jobs just couldn't get to a pantry open in the evening.

Plans are to also make Parkland's pantry a central location to supply information on a variety of programs that can help students in need. For example, many students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, may not know about it, Parkland spokeswoman Patty Lehn says.

To qualify for SNAP, a college student must be enrolled at least half-time and employed 20 hours a week or meet one of the following requirements: Caring for a child under age six, in a job training program, in a federal work study program or receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Campus hunger

Eastern Illinois Foodbank Executive Director Jim Hires says he thought the local foodbank would be "on the edge" of something when plans were afoot for a new food pantry called Newman Shares that opened recently to serve University of Illinois students and the new pantry planned for Parkland College.

"But there are several food banks that do this," he says, speaking of campus food pantries. "It's a growing area."

To establish a food pantry on a college campus, he says, the Eastern Illinois Foodbank needs an agency partner, such as Wesley Evening Food Pantry for Parkland. The St. John's Catholic Newman Center at the UI is operating Newman Shares.

Depending on how the Parkland pantry goes, Hires says, the foodbank would next like to see food pantries opened at Danville Area Community College and Lake Land Community College.

Newman Shares opened in September, and it's available to Parkland students as well as UI students until Parkland's own pantry opens. Four Parkland students with families found their way to Newman Shares pantry last month, says Newman Shares Coordinator Sister Maryann Schaefer.

The Newman Shares pantry, open two evenings a month, served 32 people in 11 households its first month open in September, and 82 people in 31 households last month, Schaefer says. She predicts use will continue to grow as the pantry continues to become established.

Meanwhile, Camp says, donations are being accepted to cover costs of the Parkland pantry.

A donation of $10 will feed a student for a week, because each dollar donated can pay for much more food through the Eastern Illinois Foodbank than what food costs at a retail store, Camp says.

Donations can be made online and designated to the Parkland pantry on the Wesley Evening Food Pantry website at: http://wesleypantry.org

Wesley Pantry at Parkland

When: Open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. However, it is not operating yet.

Where: In the 'S' building, on the south end of the Parkland College campus.

Who: The Wesley Evening Food Pantry, a program of Wesley United Methodist Church, will operate the pantry.

To help: Donations may be made online at http:// wesleypantry.org.

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