College News

Campus food pantry works to fight food insecurity at UW-Madison

The Open Seat, a campus food pantry created in February 2016, serves students who may be unsure of where their next meal is coming from.

Image By: Robert Darlington

For many UW-Madison students, the college experience includes visiting Fresh Madison Market, spending $10 on a Chipotle burrito and heading to brunch at Short Stack Eatery. But for others, access to affordable food is not as easy as heading to the nearest dining hall or restaurants on State Street.

Brooke Evans, a fifth-year senior who has experienced homelessness during her college career, said she doesn’t lead the lifestyle of many of her peers. Many students must survive off ramen noodles, Evans explained, and food becomes more segregated as years go by.

“[Students] live the Wisconsin Experience: drinking downtown, eating sushi, late night Ian’s Pizza,” Evans said. “For other students, we eat the same shit year after year.”

Evans said she had to rely on the River Food Pantry five miles off campus in previous years, so when she first heard the Associated Students of Madison was drafting a plan to start a food pantry on campus, she became an advocate for the idea.

Today, Evans and other students experiencing food insecurity can use The Open Seat, a student-run food pantry located in the Student Activity Center that opened in February 2016.

Genevieve Carter and Derek Field, former Associated Students of Madison chair and vice chair, respectively, initiated the pantry’s creation on campus.

Carter and Field thought of the pantry after observing data on food and housing insecurity from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, in addition to visiting the food pantry at UW-Stevens Point. Field said that pantry was an example of “students doing this for students.”

When Carter and Field proposed the idea, there was a lot of misconception about whether the campus needed a pantry, they said.

Over time, several students came forward to share their stories about struggling to access food, according to Carter.

She described the initial reactions of administration and students to the pantry, saying some were not as receptive to the idea.

“‘[There] can’t possibly be enough students. Why would they stay in school?’” Carter said.

By the time the food pantry was approved by the university, Carter’s and Field’s terms with ASM were nearing their end.

Vanessa Studer, current ASM vice chair, as well as Alison Montenegro and Samantha Arriozola, two student workers at The Open Seat, took the reins on making the initiative a reality.

Arrizola said she came up with the name for the pantry.

“If you look at the university as a community or dinner table, you would want to have an open seat for the people that need it,” Arriozola said. “It was important to make sure it was a comfortable-sounding environment.”

In its current state, The Open Seat only serves undergraduate and graduate UW-Madison students. However, the pantry hopes to serve more faculty in the future, Evans said.

Today, the pantry allots each student 30 points per visit, with a colored sticker attached to each item representing the amount of points it is worth.

Arriozola explained the points are based off of the lowest, generic price of the item in stores, where a penny to a dollar is one point.

“This was the most simple way we could make it,” Arriozola said.

Studer said campus support for the pantry has been “unbelievable,” and said that there will be a drive at the end of the year in university residence halls to continue collecting for the summer.

Donations are collected from various locations across campus, but Montenegro said University Health Services has consistently had the most desirable donations, like Girl Scout Cookies and other sweets.

Studer said the pantry is mostly in need of cereal, jam, sauces, peanut butter, personal hygiene items and canned fruit.

ASM members, along with Montenegro and Arriozola, expressed high hopes for the future of The Open Seat. They said they are working to incorporate perishable items into the pantry, and they are hoping to serve a larger population.

Evans also had her own goals for the pantry, saying she would like it to offer non-food items as well.

“It is hard to appear professional when you don’t have access to things to bathe. You’re trying to keep up with appearances,” Evans said. “I would love if we could have more of a selection of personal care and beauty items.”

She also said she hopes Fresh Madison Market starts donating, and that the pantry could be diabetic-and celiac-compliant.

“We exoticize poverty and hunger a lot. We are blind to what it looks like in the U.S.,” Evans said. “I want my peers to have an opportunity to be healthy, to have food options of which they can cook, have a life representative of better things.”

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