by Bridget Chagollan and Lucy Newbold
(Editorial Note: In late Spring 2021, the Student Success Initiatives (SSI) Department at Baylor began operating under the new title “Center for Academic Success and Engagement.”)
Asking someone their personal opinion on which grocery store chain is the best can be a great indicator of who they are and where they’re from. Do they love H.E.B.? Are they diehard Trader Joe’s fans? Do they pledge their allegiance to Kroger, Whole Foods, or Aldi? As college students, we frequently have friendly arguments about whose hometown is the best, which can involve heated debates about the best high schools, sports teams, or recreation opportunities—or which grocery store chain reigns superior to the rest. It’s important for Baylor students to realize, though, that during these discussions, there might be someone in the group who is sitting quietly and not weighing in because grocery stores symbolize a major financial strain in their everyday life. For this particular student, a favorite grocery store doesn’t represent a personal preference or a lifestyle; it’s a place of anxiety because either their family or they themselves can’t afford most of the food on the shelves.
For most college students, the cost of eating is the greatest expense they face beyond tuition, books, and housing, and for some students, covering the high costs of tuition, books, and having a place to live means not having enough money for groceries. With this in mind, Baylor University has taken actions to lower this financial strain and all of its associated stress for students facing food insecurity. One initiative that has been put in place on our campus is a grocery-like free food pantry called The Store, specifically for students who are struggling to afford food or who run out of food at certain times of the semester. This easy-to-use free food resource gives all students a means of knowing where their next meal is coming from without having to face either monetary stress, meal skipping, or feeling hungry.
The Store opened its doors for the first time on December 1, 2017. This project was born out of necessity—a necessity indicated by the research of Baylor graduate student Cara Cliburn Allen. Allen was piecing together research on student hunger and was asked to include a question in the New Student Survey that Baylor sends out to freshmen at the end of their first semester. This question revealed that a shockingly high percentage of Baylor students were facing food insecurity. As Allen’s research has shown, somewhere between 5-10% of Baylor students facing hunger strong enough that it was distracting, and even debilitating, to their academic endeavors. Allen’s questions also revealed that 25% of students surveyed said that they ate less than they were actually hungry for in order to preserve food for future meals.
With this new awareness that 1 in 4 surveyed students at Baylor were facing some level of hunger, the staff of the Student Success Initiatives (SSI) office submitted a proposal to the Provost, making an immediate request for space on campus to create a free-food pantry. They did not ask for money or staffing—just a location they could work from so that this pantry project could get started immediately. At the same time, the SSI staff began to look into similar resources on college campuses across the country, hoping to figure out how best to name and explain this new initiative. They borrowed the idea to call it “The Store” from another college with a free food pantry—the idea being that a student hanging out with friends could simply say, “Hey, I’m headed to the store,” and no one would have to know exactly which store they were visiting. In the interest of striking a balance between accessibility and discreetness, The Store was also given a space in the basement of Sid Rich. The hope of SSI’s director Michelle Cohenour, as she stated during our interview, is that all Baylor students feel comfortable and confident using The Store, but also know their privacy is protected if that’s what they desire.
When The Store was first opened, it was incredibly important to the SSI that the Baylor community would know of its presence on campus. So, in order to fulfill a need for free food as well as a need to raise awareness, SSI staff collected canned goods for the initial stocking of The Store’s shelves at All-University Thanksgiving. Events such as the All-University Thanksgiving and the Free Farmers Market were some of the primary ways that, back in 2017, SSI was working to combat hunger on the Baylor campus. Now, though, they wanted students to know that their food needs could be met on a more regular basis at The Store.
In a Baylor Lariat article released a few weeks before The Store opened, Michelle Cohenour explained, “[W]e wanted something that’s more sustained and sustainable so that if a student was in need on a Tuesday, and we weren’t having an event until two weeks from now, students would have access to what they need.” The Store and its mission were very well received by the Baylor community, and a large amount of canned goods were collected soon after The Store opened. In addition, word was out about The Store, and over its first two years of operation before the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the pantry was being visited between 120-125 times a week, according to Cohenour.
So now that it’s a few years since The Store was first established, it’s important to know how Baylor students can engage with The Store and become one of its visitors—maybe even one of its regulars!
According to the website, The Store seeks to “provide students in need with supplemental food so they can bring their best to the campus environment and have the strongest likelihood of achieving academic success.” The staff of the Student Success Initiatives office recognizes how essential it is to eat enough every day, not only for students’ lives in general but also to be able to succeed in classes and as part of the Baylor community. Without a reliable way to get regular meals, students not only suffer academically; they also struggle to enjoy their college experience, which is just as important. Therefore, every Baylor student is eligible to use The Store.
To have access to this free food resource, all students have to do is fill out a short form with their student ID number to begin shopping. The Store is open between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM, and there are plenty of staff nearby who are there to support students and answer any questions they may have. After the initial registration, students are in the system and may swipe in with their Baylor ID whenever they desire.
When thinking of a free food pantry, it’s possible that some students don’t feel as though their need is “great enough” to justify a trip, even if they don’t have quite enough food to keep from feeling hunger. But as long as you’re a Baylor college student, either graduate or undergraduate, and you’re in need of either food or personal hygiene products, that is a need that The Store can fulfill. Craig Nash, head of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, always tells students that if you’re in college and you’re hungry, you qualify. When students sign up to use The Store, there are no further questions asked or background information that’s collected.
As part of researching this article, and as two graduating seniors who had little knowledge about this initiative during our time at Baylor, it only made sense that to go and check out The Store ourselves. Neither of us had ever been inside of The Store before, and we were blown away at the range of foods and other products that were offered. Inside, students can find canned goods with long shelf lives, fresh produce and dairy products in the fridge, and even a collection of personal hygiene items, ranging from deodorant to feminine products. We were shocked at how much more The Store offered than we’d imagined, and even more surprised that neither of us had ever set foot inside of The Store until the second semester of our senior year. And with such a central location on campus, it’s incredibly easy to see how a student could just drop by on their way to or from class to grab whatever they might need: peanut butter, soup, pasta, yogurt, or eggs. The room is very private as well, and so if students wish to be discreet about their trip, that is completely possible.
Perhaps the most striking part of The Store is the clear positive effect it has had on the students who use it. This impact is so significant, in fact, that without any prompting, students have started leaving sticky notes on the wall of The Store—not only to convey their gratitude over this resource, but also to encourage other students who might feel wary about using a free food pantry. It was a privilege for us to read these notes and see the touching messages, which made clear just how valuable The Store has been for students’ lives. Among these notes and messages, students expressed how thankful they were to take part in this resource and how blessed they were by The Store and all of the people involved in its success. One student wrote, “This is not an easy thing to do, to come here and get food, but y’all make it a bit easier. My roommate and I can’t afford much right now, so we really appreciate this and all who help stock it. One day we will return the favor. Stay blessed.” This one example, along with an entire wall full of other notes, is a wonderful glimpse into the difference that this resource is making on our campus.
In addition to making students aware that there’s a free food pantry that’s available to everyone, we also want to encourage students to feel comfortable and confident in being users of The Store. We all know what hunger feels like, and we all know what it’s like to desperately want food during a time where you can’t have it. Given that up to 25% of all Baylor students have experienced food insecurity at some level, we probably all know more people than we may realize who could benefit from this resource—or who already use it. It’s important to keep in mind that there is no specific type of person who needs or uses The Store. Unfortunately, food insecurity is common on college campuses, and ours is no exception. To be able to have such a resource on our campus that is entirely free to students is a great blessing, and we should make a strong effort to ensure that we are empowering those among us who use it—because there are real, tangible benefits to having a strong and thriving free food pantry. SSI recently launched a feedback survey on The Store, and the responses included plenty of positive comments that were either very encouraging or simply reinforced how important this resource is. The survey responses also demonstrated that there’s a growing comfort in students who use The Store; they don’t feel either shame or judgement. Through this anonymous survey, of which Michelle Cohenour provided us with some of her favorite answers, Baylor students said things such as, “I just wanted to say thank you for this resource. It has helped me to focus on my academics and not have to worry as much about where my next meal will come from. Words cannot express my gratitude for The Store,” and “The Store has been very helpful and has allowed me to spend less time worrying about my meals.”
When we asked Michelle Cohenour what the most important message the Baylor community needed to know regarding The Store, she had a simple answer: “College hunger is real.” Feeling hunger is often invisible, but it’s both prevalent and relevant on our own campus. In light of that fact, it’s also worth highlighting the fact that food is a basic need. Food is something that every student is entitled to, because as students who have faced hunger will tell you, it’s hard to engage in the everyday realities of college life when you don’t know where your next meal will come from.
So if you are a student facing uncertainty of where your next meal will come from, this resource belongs to you. And even if you are a student who is not facing food insecurity, this initiative represents an opportunity for you to fight for the basic needs of your Baylor family. Michelle Cohenour has seen students take ownership of projects such as The Store at a number of other Big Twelve schools and says that some even become resources fully run by students. Even now, though, opportunities abound for Baylor students to utilize and support The Store. Students, parents, and alumni alike are already involved in stocking and maintaining The Store—as well as raising money to further its mission—and SSI is always looking to welcome more volunteers to the team.
In fact, some of these volunteers are shoppers at The Store—and helping out is one way that they can “give back” after everything The Store has done for them. Professors and organizations have also begun joining in the effort to provide volunteers and to raise money for The Store so that SSI can keep sustaining Baylor students without them having to worry of how they are going to sustain themselves. So, we urge you to take advantage of Baylor’s free food pantry, and the next time you’re asked what the best grocery chain around is, be an advocate for The Store! Teach others about the way The Store is helping to combat college hunger and food insecurity on Baylor’s campus.