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Campus Food Pantries For Hungry Students On The Rise


Free food - that's a pretty compelling pitch, right? But giving away free food can at times be surprisingly difficult. Noel King from our Planet Money team recently visited a place that's having this very problem.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: A little while back, Norwalk Community College realized something that a lot of community colleges are realizing - its students were having to make hard choices, like do I buy books or do I buy food? So the college set up a food pantry.

SHANNON MCAVOY: My official title is professional beggar.

KING: That's Shannon McAvoy. She runs the pantry. It's all donations. And her first challenge is getting the food to give away. She goes into stores and says, you guys have all this food you're going to throw away because it's about to expire. Can you just give it to me?

MCAVOY: Most places will say, oh, we can't - we can't do it for liability reasons.

KING: What if someone gets sick and sues? That is when she pulls a piece of paper out of her bag. It's the Good Samaritan Act of 1996, which says basically if you give food to a nonprofit, you can't get sued. She used it a couple months ago at a Stop & Shop. She was eyeing some fruit that was about to be thrown out

MCAVOY: I said, well, would you mind donating it? And they're like, oh, we can't do that. I had the Good Samaritan Act with me (laughter). I'm like, actually you can and here you go. And the manager was awesome. He's like, OK, great.

KING: A couple weeks ago, she was at Costco, and she scored about 250 bags of precut broccoli. They filled up her entire SUV. She took a selfie and she looks like a crazy broccoli hoarder.

Once she gets the food, she takes it back to the pantry, which used to be a copy room. Now it's like a very small convenience store with shelves lining the walls and cans and boxes and jars of food piled up high. There's a fridge filled with milk, pineapple, bagels, things that will go bad and have to be eaten soon. And that's the other challenge. You have to get students to come in and take the food.

MCAVOY: It makes some people really uncomfortable.

ZYGIMANTAS SAKALUSKAS: My name is Zygimantas Sakaluskas.

KING: That is a...

SAKALUSKAS: Lithuanian.

KING: Everyone just calls him Ziggy. Ziggy was one of the first people to start using the pantry after it opened. His mom had lost her job. The fridge at home was kind of sparse, so he thought, hey, free food.

SAKALUSKAS: So I figured it'd be kind of cool if I came home one day with grocery bags. And my mom would be like, where did you get all this?

KING: She did ask. It didn't go how he expected.

What was her response?

SAKALUSKAS: It wasn't great. The way she reacted was as if we kind of just stole - not stole but as if we, like, freeloaded somehow, you know?

KING: He still hasn't told his dad, a Lithuanian immigrant.

SAKALUSKAS: There's no way. He is, like, a Soviet soldier, came from a world where you don't assist and you don't get assisted.

KING: In order to encourage students to get over guilt and shame, there are almost no requirements to use the pantry. You just have to be a student. The school does marketing campaigns, fliers, emails, educational lectures.

When the pantry started, four or five students came in a day. Now it's 15 or 20. I met Jordan Dixon on his first visit to the pantry. He's working and going to school full time. He told me he's...

JORDAN DIXON: Stressed, stressed, stressed, stressed, stressed.

KING: About what?

DIXON: One, school; two, school; I'm going to say, three, school, too.

KING: On a bad day, what do you eat?

DIXON: I might have to stop by McDonald's, or if I'm not really feeling like fast food, I'll just go to sleep.

KING: Do you go to bed hungry?

DIXON: I mean, I'm a fairly skinny person, so I can go a day without eating.

KING: I looked into his reusable bag. There were three little loaves of bread and some grapes. I said, why not take more?

DIXON: It's just my upbringing. You know, I'm not a greedy person. You know, I can survive eating the amount of food I do eat.

KING: He left with his three loaves of bread and his grapes. The college estimates something like 1 in 5 of its students have some trouble buying enough food. That's 1,400 people, but only around 150 use the pantry. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.