Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Samantha Kao and three other girls piled into a gray Volkswagen on a Saturday afternoon in the fall. These strangers were making their way to the grocery store.
In order to fill their pantries, University of Michigan students living off campus have created grocery carpool trips and discovered food distribution resources from Facebook pages and student organizations. Besides these student-run methods, if someone does not have transportation, finding affordable and nutritious food on campus can be difficult.
It is Kao’s first year in off-campus housing, and she was not aware of the many obstacles that stand in the way of a student’s access to food. She was concerned about the time, money and distance that play a role in getting food in Ann Arbor. For students living in off campus housing, an unlimited meal plan is $2,265 per term.
“I’d like to think that there are resources out there, but I’ve found that there are very few. Living off campus by yourself is a big change, and having the time to prepare food on your own is a concern that my friends and I have,” Kao said.
In order to accommodate her budget and transportation needs, Kao discovered the Canterbury House, a church and concert venue that offers free weekly meal prep sessions for students at the University. Kao also found a grocery carpool service started by Social Work student Laura Rall.
Rall began offering her vehicle and time to U-M students through her Facebook page “Ladies of UofM: Food Friends.” She said that food insecurity is a problem on campus, and the carpools are not difficult for her to do because she goes to the store often.
“I go grocery shopping once a week anyways, so I thought, ‘Why not bring along others who don’t have a way to get there?’ I know that a lot of people don’t have cars here because it’s expensive. But you shouldn’t have hungry kids on campus,” Rall said. “There are also food pantries, but most are off campus and out of the way. So even though there are resources, transportation is still a barrier. Also many of the food pantries have short windows of distribution and are at inconvenient hours for students, such as peak class times.”
There are food pantries on campus, many only hold events once a month. Maize & Blue Cupboard is one of the student-run food pantries at the University. , Maize & Blue Cupboard President Dzenana Svraka, an LSA senior, said the organization is attempting to create a full-time pantry.
“Instead of the monthly version that is solidified right now, which will still continue for the remainder of the semester, a the full-time one is being created, hopefully by next semester,” Svranka said. “We are trying to establish it somewhere closer to central campus and budget the hours of operation around students’ schedules. Instead of having a rush of 300 students at once, we are hoping it would be a steady flow.”
Statistics from the September Maize & Blue Cupboard event show 21.3 percent of students at the pantry are utilizing its services because they are unable to get to a grocery store. In March, the organization’s survey revealed 11 percent of the students utilizing the pantry had financial trouble. The majority of students in both surveys disclosed they were at the pantry to save money.
Svraka hopes the full-time pantry will be accessible by Winter 2019, but the organization is waiting on a variety of permits and construction details. Until that time, there will be few sources of affordable food. Svraka mentioned the grocery stores available on campus are not financially sounds options for students.
“Based on the definition of a food desert that I’ve heard, I would consider Ann Arbor to be one. I’ve heard others refer to Ann Arbor as that. From my knowledge, we have some grocery stores, but they are a bit pricer, are specialty stores, and are much smaller so you can’t get everything you necessarily need,” Svraka said.
Last month, Public Policy Senior Daniel Greene, CSG President, signed an executive order for the launch of a Food Insecurity and Campus Affordability Task Force in order to further combat student food insecurity at the University. This group will collect data surrounding such issues, as well as highlight opportunities for student advocacy regarding food and housing affordability.
Furthermore, Public Policy senior Lauren Schandevel started an organization called the Michigan Affordability & Advocacy Coalition which has made food insecurity — among other affordability concerns — a top priority. Schandevel agrees the mere distance from grocery stores is a huge hurdle for students.
“The nearest Kroger or Meijer is about 30 minutes away from Central Campus by bus, and most students don't have a vehicle on campus because parking is either hard to find or expensive. Stores like Sparrow Market, the Food Co-Op, and Argus Farm Stop are closer to campus but incredibly expensive,” Schandevel wrote in an email interview.
Her organization has suggested the use of designated Blue Buses to take students directly to grocery stores like Meijer and Kroger. This seems to be in accord with the thoughts of many students. According to Kao, the extent of the University’s efforts goes toward the Meijer Mania that happens once at the beginning of the school year.
Kao is saddened that the University hasn’t done more for their students, as it is a prominent issue and the school has many resources.
“It is kind of disappointing but not surprising that Meijer Mania is one of the only event that happens,” Kao said. "I think they should allocate resources to this issue because there are a large amount of people on campus who don’t have adequate transportation to get to a store. Knowing that it’s such a big University and they have a lot of resources, it definitely seems possible for them to take action. It wouldn’t go unnoticed; it would really make a difference.”