BLACKSBURG — They aren’t invisible, but for many people they go completely unseen.
Until Virginia Tech senior Kelly Berry heard firsthand about a fellow college student struggling with food and shelter, she too was among the blind.
“He would sleep in the library, in like the cubical pretending like he was studying...and shower and change at the gym,” Berry said.
At a school whose dining services’ garnered national attention last fall for their number one ranking in the “best food” category of the Princeton Review’s “Best 379 Colleges: 2015 Edition” publication, the story brought a quiet population of students into focus for Berry.
“I’d been on a few missions trips … I saw that there was food insecure there, but I didn’t realize there was food insecurity at Virginia Tech until I heard that story,” Berry said.
The realization inspired her to found the 209 Manna Ministries Food Pantry in the Roanoke Street building for the United Methodist’s campus ministry, Wesley at Virginia Tech, in November 2013.
It is the first and only campus food pantry solely dedicated to assisting the population Berry feels is easily overlooked, according to the university’s Division of Student Affairs.
“When you walk across the drillfield and look at students we all look the same. You wouldn’t be able to pick out a person and say there is a person with food insecurity,” Berry said.
Since its launch, the pantry has averaged serving around a dozen students each week and has more than 50 registered on its permanent roll.
One of those students is a 25-year-old senior studying philosophy who agreed to speak to The Roanoke Times on the condition her name not be published. She said securing food during her most of her college career had been a daily struggle prior to the pantry.
“I pretty often had to skip one meal a day to afford the other two,” she said.
As a student attempting to pay for college on her own she said her situation was worrisome until she heard of Berry’s effort in November.
“I was sitting in a bathroom stall and saw a little flyer and was like, ‘Ah, I need this,’ “ she said.
Since that moment the student said she’d regularly visited the pantry for non-perishable items, which had allowed her to use her own money to supplement her diet with fresh meat and eggs.
“Having all my meals, it’s not nearly as stressful,” she said.
The pantry Berry created is one of around 120 college-based food banks or pantries that make up the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA).
CUFBA co-founder and Michigan State University Student Food Bank Director Nate Smith-Tyge said the alliance began with about 30 schools when it was jointly started by Michigan State and Oregon State in 2012 and was the result of three to four colleges a week calling him for food pantry related advice.
“People are starting to realize there is, and always has been, a hidden population of students,” Smith-Tyge said.
The Michigan State Student Food Bank began in 1993 and assists about 4,000 clients each year, Smith said.
According to Feeding America, a non-profit which operates a network of 200 food banks and 58,000 feeding programs throughout the country, that student population makes up a sizable chunk of the nation’s hungry people.
On its website, www.feedingamerica.org and based on surveys given to more than 60,000 food program clients, 10 percent of the people the nonprofit helps is said to be either full or part-time students and 31 percent of that population has made a decision between food and education in the past year.
Smith-Tyge said he believes the population is rising due to the combination of the economy, more non-traditional students attending college, and the ever rising cost of higher education.
According to Tech’s website, the estimated yearly cost for an in-state undergraduate student living on campus is $19,941 and an out-of-state is $35,972, with additional expenses such as books and supplies estimated at $1,000.
A decade ago those figures were $10,062 for an in-state student and $20,805 for an out-of-state student.
The numbers include the required meal plan, which in the 2014-2015 school year ranges from $1,581 to $1,812 a semester and is estimated to provide 10, 12, or 14 meals per week.
Off-campus students who previously lived on campus can purchase a regular meal plan or chose the “Minor Flex Plan” for $839 per semester. According to Tech’s website, more than 11,000 off-campus students chose a meal plan last year.
Despite the high cost of college, Smith-Tyge said in his five years of working with the Michigan State bank and time with CUFBA getting people to see past many typical college student stereotypes and support the effort had been the greatest challenge.
“I think what a lot of campuses face when starting up is overcoming what people think of college kids, if they spent less money on beer and partying they’d have more money for food,” Smith-Tyge said.
“That’s really not true for most students that genuinely face food insecurity,” he said.
Virginia Tech Senior Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok said he believed those stereotypes were at least part of the reason Tech had never previously had a food assistance program for students on campus.
“When people think of not being able to eat or being homeless, college students aren’t the first group that comes to mind,” Shushok said. “It’s a testament to the assumptions we make about who needs help and who doesn’t need help.”
Berry said when she approached Shushok and other school officials two years ago with her idea she received an almost instant blessing.
“The only question they asked was when will this food pantry be available for the students,” Berry said.
Working with volunteers from the Wesley Foundation and more recently Blacksburg’s New Life Christian Fellowship, Berry oversaw the transformation of a former study area inside the Wesley Foundation’s building to a pantry filled with thousands of donated items.
She said so far she’s found the community and school to be very supportive of the idea and pointed out that the Corp of Cadets recently donated more than 5,000 canned goods.
By simply showing a Hokie Passport students are allowed to pick up items based on a points system, much like one Berry said she witnessed at a food pantry during a missions trip to Alabama. Items are given a points value and students are allowed 50 points a week with which to shop, as well as 25 points per dependent in their household.
Though shopping at the pantry is considered anonymous, Berry does ask each client to fill out a survey in hopes of collecting enough data to apply for grants in the future.
According to the survey results, just more than 25 percent of the pantry’s clients work a job while attending school and about a third are currently using grants, scholarships, or student loans as a source of income. The majority of students using the pantry are undergraduates and about 27 percent are international students.
Berry said what had surprised her most was the number of students, about 10 percent, who came to the pantry seeking items for their children. Because of this they’ve expanded the items they ask for to include diapers, toiletries, and school supplies.
The pantry is currently open to shoppers from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday of each week and is operated by six to eight student volunteers.
A senior majoring in Agricultural Sciences with hopes of becoming a physical therapist, Berry said she hopes some of those students will step up and keep the pantry going long past her graduation in December.
For now though, Berry is more than happy to spend her time operating what she sees as many students’ lone source for food assistance.
“They come into the pantry and tell me their stories and say how I’m touching theirs lives, but really they’re touching mine,” Berry said.
“It’s all the reward anybody ever needs.”