According to the 2015 Boynton Student Health Survey, about 10.2% of University of Minnesota students reported that, within the past 12 months, they had run out of food and didn’t have the money to buy more food. Over the same period, 17.5% percent of the university’s students worried about their food running out before they had money to buy more. The study also found an increase of 33% in students reporting a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime, as compared to 2013.
Nutritious U Food Pantry
When Rebecca Leighton (BS Nutrition ‘15), currently a second-year graduate student at the university’s School of Public Health, heard about the study in the spring of 2016, she decided to take action. Leighton tapped her degree in nutrition and combined it with her research topic for graduate school to find a solution to help the students in need. “My research for my degree is interviewing food-insecure students,” she said in a statement. “I’m learning about the psychological impact of food insecurity.”
Leighton started Nutritious U Food Pantry, an on-campus food pantry, to provide students in need with healthy food. “We don’t just want to provide emergency food to students who will use it,” Leighton declared. “We want to increase their access to healthy food, increase their well-being and overall increase their learning potential.”
Leighton believes that access to healthy food will also help alleviate anxiety in students. “This is what I study,” Leighton explained. “I know the overall importance of food to the whole person. Most people understand that nutritious food is key to physical health. What they don’t always understand is that feelings of anxiety around accessing food can also impact a person’s mental health.”
Leighton is adamant that only healthy food is the solution. “Food insecurity is a big problem that college students are facing and at the same time, our country is facing some serious issues when it comes to chronic diseases related to obesity,” Leighton told TUN.
I believe all students should have reliable access not only to food, but to fresh and healthy food. That is why the Nutritious U Food Pantry stocks mostly fresh produce and other wholesome foods.
Nutritious U Food Pantry has hosted two events successfully — one in February and another in March of this year. TUN found out from Leighton that the pantry served about 550 students at the first event and 927 students at the second event. Each event was scheduled for 3 days, but the pantry ran out of food after a day and a half during the first event. To expand the reach of the pantry, Leighton is working on making the pantry a permanent fixture starting this fall.
Leighton told TUN that she has a leadership team of 8 undergraduate students who helped her start the pilot pantries and are now working with her to establish a permanent pantry. The pantry also relied on other student volunteers to staff the pilot pantries.
New Organic Garden
In line with Leighton’s ambition to implement a permanent pantry, Nutritious U Food Pantry now has a garden plot, which will supply one-third of what the pantry needs. It is estimated that the garden will yield up to 1,300 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables. Leighton and her team intend to plant seeds through mid-summer and then start harvesting. They also intend to use the garden as an educational tool to teach students about new food options, so they will host cooking classes, educational events and canning days.
Leighton believes that students would be more willing to explore other food options if they have access to the vegetables from the garden. “If you’re on a limited budget, are you really going to spend your very few precious dollars on a new vegetable that you’ve never tried before and maybe you won’t like?” she told the Minnesota Daily.
The new garden is important for both the pantry and the students. “The new garden is a great addition because it not only contributes fresh produce to the pantry, it allows students the opportunity to learn more about where their food comes. I think this teaches an appreciation for food and is important to learn at this time,” Leighton told TUN.
An Award for Leighton
Leighton is passionate about her cause, and has put it in a lot of time and effort in the past year to get the pantry going. Her hard work was recognized by the university, and she received the University of Minnesota President’s Student Leadership and Service Award for starting the Nutritious U Food Pantry. She deserved it!
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.