School Food Pantry Helps College Students and Families in Need

When Mary Ann was laid off last spring, her first thought was her 7-year-old daughter Madison: “How will we be able to provide for everything she needs?” she recalled thinking.

“With bills to pay, feeding our family and pets — I had a slight panic attack,” she shared.

Mary Ann is a student studying Sports Science at Northern Michigan University. Like many students, she had faced financial difficulties in the past, but never to this extent. Then, she remembered that NMU has a food pantry, where any student in need can shop the shelves for essentials.

Finding help and hope at the pantry

“Everybody there is so kind and caring and judgment-free. It was like a safe zone,” Mary Ann shared. “They were always super helpful and made our experiences lovely.”

Haley, the college’s assistant dean of students, runs the pantry and does all she can for the students she serves. Haley and the pantry’s volunteers always try to include something fun in Mary Ann’s groceries for Madison — like toys, Star Wars chicken noodle soup or mac n cheese in fun shapes.

“It was a treat to see Mary Ann and her daughter unload their box into their backpacks and discover the special items that we had on the shelves,”
Haley said.

Haley standing by shelves of food

One day, Mary Ann’s car broke down, so she biked to the pantry, planning to carry the food home with her. Realizing how difficult that task was, Haley began delivering food to the family instead.

Throughout the pandemic, the family stayed afloat thanks to Mary Ann’s husband’s job, unemployment income and help from the pantry.

“We have all learned to slow down and enjoy each and every minute together,” Mary Ann shared. “We could not have done it without the help of NMU’s food pantry.”

Students commonly face trade-offs to get an education

Mary Ann has a background in personal training and massage therapy, but recently chose to act on a longtime dream — and invest in her family’s future — by finishing up her degree. She has just three classes left and is considering grad school. Madison has often attended college classes with Mary Ann for one reason or another, and is learning so much from the professors!

Even during normal times, it’s common for students to struggle. In 2017, NMU surveyed students and found that 40 percent had gone hungry because they couldn’t afford food. In response, they opened a food pantry and stock their shelves in large part with food from Feeding America West Michigan.

Students often find ways to balance everything, but sometimes an illness happens, a car breaks down or a student teaching requirement gets in the way of employment, causing money to run out. In these times of crisis, students must choose where to allocate their funds. Often, food is the easiest expense to cut out.

Mary Ann and daughter "shop" at a food pantry

Using the pantry — according to a survey the college conducted this year — helps students reduce anxiety, prioritize other financial obligations, stay continuously enrolled and realize they aren’t alone.

“There are so many students who are working like crazy to change their circumstances and get out of poverty. Getting a college education is one of their steps along the way,” Haley said. “I love hearing students talk about how when they are out of their current circumstances and are able to give back, that they’ll support food pantries.”

The food bank is proud to support the efforts of NMU to end hunger at their school. We hope that, one day, students like Mary Ann across our service area can focus on making their dreams come true — instead of worrying about food.