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Alleviating Food Insecurity at the Holidays and All Year Long

Maureen McNish and Alison Self stock the shelves in the Cougar Food Pantry.

Staff members Maureen McNish and Alison Self stock the shelves in the Cougar Food Pantry.

The holidays are a time when people often reach out to their neighbors in need, but staff members Maureen McNish and Alison Self know that people in the community face issues of hunger all year long. As founders of Caldwell University’s food pantry, they have learned that food insecurity on a university campus can exist for different reasons. Sometimes people may be in dire straits. Other times they may be “falling short this week and not getting paid until the end of the month,” explained McNish, who works as a retention specialist at the university. Or they might not have realized they needed a deposit for a new apartment’s utilities or security and didn’t budget for food, said McNish. And there are times when a student’s family might be facing tough times due to disability or death. “We don’t ask financial questions,” McNish said. The Cougar Food Pantry is there to help students, faculty staff and facilities personnel —and their families—who are in need whether over the long term or simply through a tough patch.

Since the pantry opened in 2016, use has gone up exponentially, with 89 visits in the 2018-19 academic year. McNish and Self are happy about that; they want it to be used. Still, they know more people on campus could use the service, and they want to reach them.

The pantry carries nonperishable food, baby items like diapers and wipes, feminine products, grocery store gift cards and even some hats and gloves. The more students talk, the more the word spreads, and then they will bring friends, explained Self, administrative assistant in the Wellness Center. She has found that “Once they get past the first time and realize how easy it is,” they feel more comfortable using the pantry.

According to the College & University Food Bank Alliance, 30% of college students are food insecure, 56% of food-insecure students are working and 75% of food-insecure students receive financial aid.

Caldwell’s food pantry was the brainchild of McNish, who was told a few years ago by another staff member that her office sometimes gave food vouchers to students who commute so they could eat a meal during their long day. It hit McNish that some students might not have enough to eat. She told a co-worker, who said that when she was a college student she often could not afford food. That got McNish thinking about students who might be hungry and the ways the campus community could help.

McNish and Self often send out the word when donations are needed, and they are grateful for the support they have received from so many people living out the Catholic Dominican mission of service, ranging from President Nancy Blattner, who helped get the pantry up and running, to the people who regularly drop off items. University groups will often make the pantry the charity they support. The Psychology Club, the Board of Trustees and the Alumni Shore Chapter recently took up collections. “We can’t say enough about the Sisters,” said McNish, explaining that one year the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell chose the pantry for their Lenten ministry and they have continued to help since then.

For McNish and Self, operating the pantry has been a learning experience, showing them that people’s needs are often hidden. They recalled one student who did not have a pot or pan in which to make soup. “It makes me relook at things, not take things for granted,” said McNish. “Just knowing you are helping in one small part of their lives, making it a little easier for them, enriches my life too,” said Self.

To set up an appointment to receive items at the food pantry, email cougarfoodpantry@caldwell.edu. All contact is private. The pantry is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is not open weekends or holidays.

Those wishing to see the list of suggested items to donate can go to https://www.caldwell.edu/cougar-food-pantry/shopping-list. Donations can be dropped off at CARES, the Wellness Center, the Academic Affairs suite, the Jennings Library, the Student Life Office and the Newman Welcome Center. To make large donations and to meet the staff at the pantry, email cougarfoodpantry@caldwell.edu.