A new food sharing cabinet located outside of Muller Chapel aims to give students food while reducing the stigma of using a food pantry.
Elizabeth Jesch ’20, AmeriCorps VISTA in the Center for Civic Engagement, introduced the Mutual Aid Food Sharing Cabinet to the college’s campus April 15 with the help of a group of six students. Some of these students became involved through IC Food for Thought and Challah for Hunger, and others had an interest in addressing food insecurity, Jesch said.
Jesch is the food sharing coordinator for Mutual Aid Tompkins, the organization that the food cabinet on campus is from. She said the organization currently has 59 food sharing cabinets throughout Tompkins County. Jesch said she wanted to bring a food cabinet to campus to make the resource more accessible for college students.
“The cabinet is really being run by students,” Jesch said. “And that, I think, is powerful just because they’re ultimately taking ownership and are really helping to manage the whole process.”
Senior Maria White is one of the students who is helping to manage the food cabinet. White is the president of IC Food for Thought, a group that aims to address food insecurity and educate people on social justice issues. White said she first started working with Jesch in Fall 2020. When Jesch had the idea to bring the food cabinet to campus in Spring 2021, Jesch asked IC Food for Thought to help manage it.
“When Elizabeth first introduced the idea, I was so excited because it is such a great initiative to have on campus,” White said. “While we do have the food pantry, I think the food cabinet is a great way of making it accessible 24/7.”
The cabinet is self-serve and is available for use at all times by all members of the campus community free of charge. It contains nonperishable food items like canned goods and dried fruits and nuts, as well as personal care products like soap and feminine hygiene products. Jesch said these items are supplied through multiple sources, including the food pantry on campus and donations from individuals. White said the students managing the cabinet created a Facebook page to give daily updates on what is available in the cabinet.
The on-campus food pantry is available for all members of the campus community and includes nonperishable food, frozen foods, fresh produce and personal care products. It is open from 8 a.m. to midnight Tuesday through Sunday in the DeMotte room in the Campus Center.
Jesch said it is important to have this food sharing cabinet on campus even though there is already an on-campus food pantry because the cabinet provides another option for students to access food. She said some people may not want to go to a food pantry because they worry about being judged. A 2019 study from DePauw University found that some college students do not use campus food pantries because they believe they do not need the help as much as other students, or they feel ashamed that they cannot afford food. A 2016 Campus Climate Survey at the college showed that approximately 500 students out of approximately 3,000 students who were surveyed reported difficulty in affording food.
The food cabinet may alleviate these worries because there is no social interaction necessary. Jesch said the placement of the cabinet outside Muller Chapel also makes it more private because the area does not get a lot of traffic, but it is still centrally located on campus.
“The on-campus pantry that we have is awesome, and it definitely provides things that the food sharing cabinet can’t, such as a much larger quantity of food,” Jesch said. “But I think with food insecurity, there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all model for every single person. So I think that it’s advantageous for there to be different ways that people can get their needs met at IC.”
While people who use the food pantry on campus are asked to show their Ithaca College ID, the food sharing cabinet is anonymous. However, people who use the cabinet are asked to put a checkmark in a notebook for the items they take from the cabinet. There are 33 checkmarks as of May 4.
Junior Ashley Hart said she started helping the food cabinet as a member of IC Food for Thought. She said her main goal in working with the cabinet is to educate students on food security resources.
“There are food cabinets around the Ithaca community, but I feel that most students are unaware of where they are and what a food cabinet is,” Hart said via email. “If we build more awareness of this cabinet, more students will realize that these types of resources are out there for them and very accessible.”
IC Food for Thought will be fully managing the cabinet beginning in Fall 2021 because Jesch leaves her position at the college in July. White said she hopes the presence of the bright blue food sharing cabinet on campus will bring more attention to food insecurity.
“It’s very visible, which I think also works to destigmatize the issue of food insecurity by kind of promoting these values of mutual aid right here on campus,” White said. “It really can become part of the community fabric and just taking care of each other with these mutual aid efforts.”