AMES, Iowa – The rumble of fully loaded carts echoed down a hallway in Beyer Hall on a late-summer morning as volunteers unloaded about 3,500 pounds of food from a truck for delivery to the SHOP Food Pantry.
The thump of boxes being stacked, unloaded and broken down inside the pantry mingled with the chatter of the 25 or so Iowa State University students and employees as they placed the food on shelves or in coolers to be given to students facing food insecurity. The delivery boxes contained canned fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, frozen breakfast foods, sweet potatoes and other staples.
It took around 45 minutes for the group to unload and organize the delivery from Food Bank of Iowa, a process that plays out twice a month. The pantry supplements those deliveries with food from other sources, such as the ISU Meats Laboratory and Poultry Farm.
The student-led pantry provides a critical service, and demand is growing by leaps and bounds, said Sarah Schroeder, a senior in food science who volunteers on the executive team that leads the pantry.
“The biggest challenge has been the logistics of bringing that much food in and out of the SHOP and making sure there are volunteers able to move all that food,” Schroeder said.
But as demand has grown, so has university support. Iowa State has supported the pantry’s mission through grants and the recent hiring of a full-time staff member this semester whose primary responsibility is coordinating with the pantry. That means the pantry is better positioned than ever to alleviate food insecurity among the ISU student population, allowing students to devote more time and focus to their academic performance.
"The work we’re doing is making it so students can access food, stay in school and better their lives,” Schroeder said.
The SHOP (Students Helping Our Peers) Food Pantry opened its doors in 2011 as a student-led organization connected to the food science and human nutrition department. At the time, the pantry was little more than a closet in the Food Sciences Building where some nonperishable items were kept.
More than a decade later, the organization has grown into a vital resource for a wide swath of Iowa State University students who depend on the pantry for all kinds of food staples. The pantry moved to a full-size retail space in 1306 Beyer Hall as it became clear just how much demand existed for its services, Schroeder said.
SHOP distributed about 1,800 pounds of food in April 2021. That number rose to 5,300 pounds in April 2022 and leapt to 14,000 pounds of food in April 2023. Most of the food available at the pantry originates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food Bank of Iowa, and SHOP has had to expand those partnerships to keep up with demand.
Student run, student focused
Schroeder said part of SHOP’s mission is to remove the stigma of food insecurity so students feel comfortable accessing the pantry’s services. She stressed that students need not demonstrate a need to access the pantry’s services. Any visitor with an ISU student ID can go to the SHOP during open hours and pick out what they need from the shelves. A volunteer will weigh and document what each visitor chooses, and visitors are asked to fill out a form. But all data is kept confidential.
Schroeder said students do most of the work at SHOP. An executive committee of five students provides leadership for the organization, and around 150 student volunteers staff the shop throughout the school year. She said having a heavy student presence in the operation of the pantry makes students more comfortable with accessing its services.
“We’re trying to create an environment in which students are empowered,” Schroeder said. “At the end of the day, we’re students trying to help students. That aspect of helping our peers helps us to break down the stigma surrounding food insecurity.”
Around 31% of ISU students are food insecure, according to a 2021 study of a random sample of ISU students. That figure tracks with nationwide food insecurity among college students, said Brian Vanderheyden, director of student wellness.
He attributes the growth in demand for the pantry’s services to wider awareness of SHOP among the student body as well as increases in the cost of living and groceries. He said many college students work multiple jobs and still struggle to keep up with rising costs. Pantries like SHOP help to relieve some of the financial pressure, he said.
As demand has grown, the university has extended official support for the pantry’s mission. The pantry received a total of $32,363 in donations and grants and over 29,000 pounds of donated food in the last fiscal year. The Department of Student Wellness hired April Lopez as a program specialist at the start of the current semester to work with students at SHOP and expand university infrastructure to support basic need security. Additionally, the university provided $74,100 as part of its fiscal 2024 funding for strategic plan projects to expand the pantry’s infrastructure. Student Wellness, the Sloss Center for Women and Gender Equity and the ISU chapter of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority also collaborated to secure a grant of $7,500 from the national Alpha Gamma Delta Foundation to help SHOP provide basic needs support items, widen the availability of international foods in the pantry and to provide meal planning education programs. The SHOP also received a $4,000 grant last year from the United Way of Story County.
And SHOP entered a competition with other food pantries at Big 12 schools to track donated food and funding as well as growth in social media followers. During the week leading up to the Oct. 14 football game against Cincinnati, the pantry organizers encouraged the campus community to follow SHOP on Instagram, donate to help purchase food or host a food drive.
The strong collaboration across various corners of the community and beyond sets students up for success during their time at Iowa State, he said.
“Basic need instability is directly tied to a student’s ability to perform well both inside and outside classroom,” he said. “If students are hungry, they can’t learn.”