“We have all the data,” says Ellie Green, student director of the UW Food Pantry, as she pries open a thick ring binder packed with spreadsheets, charts and graphs tracking every aspect, in minute detail, of the essential campus resource she manages. Sources of food. Volunteer hours. Donations. Food drives. Quantity distributed.
But one data visualization in particular paints a strikingly vivid—and vertiginous—picture of the situation the pantry is addressing. The trend line of quarterly visits rises steadily for the past few years before skyrocketing last fall, when the pantry hosted more than 6,000 visits. That is a tripling of demand in just five years.
“It’s hard to think about your future if you don’t have food on your plate now,” Green says.
Fortunately, free food distribution centers are ramping up to meet the exploding need on all three campuses with determination, resourcefulness and extreme empathy. They are the UW Food Pantry in Seattle, the Husky Pantry at UW Bothell and The Pantry at UW Tacoma.
To help them keep pace this year, each center will receive a share of more than $20,000 donated to date by participants of The Whole U’s “Dare to Restore 2024” new year’s wellness program.
Every dollar makes a difference.
By the numbers
The most recent National Postsecondary Student Aid Study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 23% of undergraduates and 12% of graduate students experienced food insecurity in 2020—rates higher than the general public. The study also revealed that 35% of Black students, 30% of Indigenous students and 25% of Hispanic students experienced basic needs insecurity.
Judging by each UW food bank’s recent accounting, the need has only grown since pre-pandemic days.
The UW Food Pantry served the university’s largest campus community at a rate of 600 visits per week last quarter, which has continued to increase through the first month of 2024. The Pantry at UW Tacoma is now serving 100 students a week, according to manager Dalia Susana. And visits to the Husky Pantry at UW Bothell have doubled each quarter over the past year, reaching more than 420 in the fall “and we continue to be just as busy in the new year,” says Heather Kenning, manager of UW Bothell’s Basic Needs Program. “We have started seeing a major increase in usage.”
The recent expansion of campus food insecurity comes down to basic economics. High inflation, supply chain woes, rising labor costs, insufficient housing and other fiscal forces have sent the costs of rent, fuel, food and basic necessities soaring in the Puget Sound region.
Although systemic racial inequities make populations of color most susceptible, just about everyone is feeling the pressure on their budgets. And students tend to be especially vulnerable.
It is a myth that college is a bastion of the affluent and entitled alone. In reality, many students live on an economic razor’s edge, surviving on financial aid, loans and other campus resources that can often run out. Savings are often minimal. Work hours can be limited by the demands of schoolwork. And students often don’t qualify for benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Lunch & Learn more
Don’t miss the upcoming online “lunch & learn” discussion of food insecurity at the UW. It will be hosted February 29 from noon to 1 p.m. by The Whole U and UW Combined Fund Drive. Expert panelists include Ellie Green, Heather Kenning and Dalia Susana, moderated by Jolyn Mason, director of UW Employee Social Impact Programs.
At UW, the large population of first-generation students face extra financial challenges, according to Green. “The reality is that people go to college and try to make it work for the promise of a better future. But the resources available are not always sufficient.”
Beyond the stereotype of the “starving student” who eats only ramen, Kenning says that the unique economic situation in our region shines a spotlight on how inflation and the extreme rise in the cost of living are impacting students. “Food insecurity in our community means students are having to make tough choices about housing, tuition and groceries,” she says, “while keeping up with school.”
In this equation, food is often first to be sacrificed.
Critical community resources
On a weekday in January, the wire shelves of the compact UW Food Pantry are stacked with canned goods and bags of rice, oats, dried noodles, flour and dried beans. Bins of onions and potatoes are filled from 50-pound bags. A double-wide refrigerator is stocked with milks, salads and ready-to-eat meals. Another shelf displays hygiene products, diapers, Covid tests and Narcan doses.
The Seattle campus pantry collected and distributed nearly 40,000 pounds of grocery products last quarter alone. Inventory derives from contributions to the Any Hungry Husky Fund (44%), food drives (19%), individual food donations (12%), food recovery from UW Housing & Food Services and on-campus retail partners (10%) and Northwest Harvest (8%). Additionally, an organization called Community Loaves delivers fresh baked bread and cookies twice a month. And the high demand for fresh produce is boosted in season by twice-weekly deliveries from the UW Farm. “Overwhelmingly, folks want produce,” Green says. “But they’re also looking for staples. It seems simple, but with prices going up, they hold people over longer.”
This complicated operation is orchestrated by an overlapping team of four part-time staff (Green is a graduate student at the Evans School of Public Policy) and upwards of 80 volunteers each week.
They communicate on social media, coordinate food drives, receive and process donations and source food from local establishments. “Our team is fantastic,” Green gushes. “I can’t say enough about them. They are so passionate and problem-solving and collaborative. And then we have amazing volunteers who bring energy and potential solutions to our challenges. We’re trying to level everyone up.”
The fuel to thrive
With the need growing so rapidly, each of the pantries are struggling to keep pace. Doing so will require increased donations of cash and food, via drop-offs, food drives or even Amazon orders. And they need more volunteer hands to keep the shelves stocked and the community served.
“Helping us keep our inventory is our biggest need,” says Kenning. “Hosting food drives or donation drives are extremely important in helping us keep up. We do a pretty good job as a campus community rallying to support the Husky Pantry, but having assistance from people who can leverage their community resources helps us expand our reach.”
The Pantry at UW Tacoma’s would benefit from contributions of time and food items. But the greatest need is “funding, funding, funding,” according to Susana. “Due to budget cuts, we have lost many of our donors, vendors and funds. We know that the volunteers will show if we have the need for them, which will be when we increase our funding.”
Green at the UW Food Pantry echoes the call of her colleagues. “We rely on donations. Food drives—in person or virtual—are really impactful. And spreading the word is really important.”
That includes advocating for more resources from Olympia addressing food insecurity on UW campuses.
“More awareness is always my answer,” Green says.
Because these pantries are providing an essential resource, making miracles out of shoe-string budgets. “We provide food for students who are food insecure,” says Susana. “This allows them to get the necessary nutrients that they need to thrive in class and gives them the opportunity to be at the same level and mindset as their peeps.”
“For anyone affiliated with UW who is experiencing food insecurity, we are here to support you,” Green says. “We can’t provide everything. We’re one tool in a toolbox. “But we know that food insecurity is detrimental to health, impacts attention span, ability to concentrate—ability to do anything! We don’t want anyone to be hungry.”
Get to know your UW food pantries
- Established in 2016 as a series of pop-ups before moving into its permanent home in Poplar Hall in 2018.
- Located in 210 Poplar Hall, 1311 NE 41st St.
- Open Monday through Friday (various hours)
- Offers shelf-stable and fresh food, baked goods, hygiene products, Covid tests, Narcan
- Serves UW students and staff (with UW ID); one visit per week to receive 2-3 days of food
- Founded in 2016 as an initiative through the Student Diversity Center; now part of the Health and Wellness Resource Center (HaWRC).
- Located in 120 ARC (Health and Wellness Research Center)
- Open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
- Offers grocery staples, seasonal products, hygiene and toiletry items (all non-perishable)
- Serves UW Bothell students (with UW ID)
- Created by the Center for Equity and Inclusion in 2013 in response to a survey revealing that 40% of UT Tacoma students were food insecure.
- Located in 104 Dougan Hall; moving to 010 William Phillip Hall (WPH) on Feb. 16.
- Open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 4;45 p.m.
- Offers shelf-stable and perishable food accommodating different dietary and cultural needs plus hygiene items.
- Serves UW Tacoma students (with UW ID); one visit per week; up to 20 items per visit.
How to give or get help
Visit the websites of the UW Food Pantry (Seattle), The Pantry (Tacoma) and Husky Pantry (Bothell) to learn how you can access their services or support their work through donations of money, food or time.
You can also give financial support through The Whole U’s Dare to Restore 2024 program or by setting up a gift through the UW Combined Fund Drive. University of Washington Husky Hunger Relief (); University of Washington Tacoma Pantry (#); University of Washington Bothell Food Pantry (#
Photography by Sebastian Ky.