New group aims to provide students with groceries and fresh produce
Crates lined the walls of a small meeting room in Appleby Hall, stacked high above the heads of volunteers and filled with fresh fruits, vegetables and other food staples for distribution to University of Minnesota students. Nutritious U, a new student group dedicated to providing campus with healthy, easily accessible food, hosted their first food pantry event Feb. 22 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In the mere eight hours their makeshift pantry was open, nearly 500 students arrived, many times forming a line out of the door as they came to pick up free groceries. By the end of the day, all 3,000 pounds of fresh apples, oranges, carrots, potatoes and more had been completely given out.
“It was incredible,” said Rebecca Leighton, president of Nutritious U and master’s student in the School of Public Health’s Nutrition Coordinated program. “We originally planned for three days, but by the end of our first day we didn’t have any food left!”
To assemble the pantry, Nutritious U partnered with Minneapolis-based Food Group, a food bank fighting hunger in the cities. The majority of provisions at the event came out of this partnership. Using donations that had been collected over the summer and fall of 2016 as well as a $2,500 grant from the Minnesota Student Association, the student group purchased fresh food at a significant discount.
The event was the first of two pilot pantries planned for spring 2017 by Nutritious U, which grew out of a project Leighton and several other graduate students had created in her Community Nutrition Intervention class. Although the projects only needed to function theoretically, Leighton decided to pursue her group’s plan.
“At that same time as we were doing this project, a survey from Boynton had just come out,” Leighton recalled. “It indicated that 10 percent of students polled had experienced food shortages, and 17 percent were worried their food would run out before they were able to get more”
These statistics shocked Leighton to the point that she began to do additional research, seek faculty to assist with the project, and eventually form a student group for recruitment of undergraduate volunteers.
“We found that lots of other schools had food pantries,” Leighton explained. “Minnesota is one of only two Big 10 schools without one.”
By then, Leighton had already begun to form a new team with seven core members.
In addition to connecting with the student body, Leighton and her team met and developed relationships with several faculty members, including Dave Golden, Director of Public Health at Boynton Health Services, who connected Leighton with many others.
“He was one of the first champions of the project,” Leighton said. “Without his initial energy, I’m not sure how far we would have gotten.”
Hans Peterson, program coordinator at the Office for Student Affairs, helped spread word about the pantry across campus as an adviser for Nutritious U, Leighton said.
Finally, Alyssa Lundberg, sustainability coordinator at University Dining Services, contributed technical assistance and event planning for the pantry.
After Nutritious U’s first successful food drive, Leighton had renewed confidence in the establishment of a permanent food pantry on campus by fall 2017. This pantry would continue to be run primarily by student volunteers. However, the exact location has yet to be determined.
“We’ve been looking at a lot of different locations,” Leighton said. She first thought of Boynton, then the campus YMCA, and finally came back to the idea of hosting the pantry in Appleby Hall. “We want to put ourselves in a location where the people that really need the food can find us. But for now we’re undecided.”
Despite slight uncertainty, Leighton could not stop herself from thinking even further into the future, which she hopes will include pop-up food pantries on the St. Paul campus, if not a second permanent location.
“I lived in Bailey Hall,” Leighton laughed, “so I’ll always have a special place in my heart for St. Paul.”
The second Nutritious U pilot pantry is set for March 29-31 at the University YMCA. Leighton is currently seeking funding to provide an additional 4,000 pounds of food for the event and will also be accepting food donations when the next pantry opens. More information and future events can be found on Nutritious U’s Facebook page “NUPUMN.”
“We’ve all put a lot of hours into this,” Leighton said. “I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish.”