Worker stocks canned goods on the shelves

Keeping the Shelves Stocked:
Essential Work
of the
Maize and Blue Cupboard

It has been called an “invisible problem”—one that is disproportionately affecting college students in the United States. The problem is food insecurity: not knowing how to access your next meal. This growing concern has spurred demand for food assistance programs on campuses nationwide, including the University of Michigan.

M Cupboard 2
Artwork By Phillip Zhang

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this problem for students and families who have lost income that previously covered the cost of food, and those who have remained on campus during the state-wide shutdown have fewer food options than ever before.

At Michigan, the Maize and Blue Cupboard is providing a local solution to this nationwide challenge, including extending its hours to serve those in the U-M community affected by the pandemic. Serving over a thousand shoppers a week, the Cupboard offers free groceries, household and personal items, cooking classes, counseling services, and other programs to ensure U-M students, faculty, and staff who are food insecure receive equitable access to nutritious food and other valuable resources at no cost.

“The work we do helps to solve national issues right here in our backyard,” said Steve Mangan,  senior director of Michigan Dining. “Support from individual departments, donors, community neighbors, and other students have helped to create a space where students can get help without having any stigma attached to their needs.”

Studies show roughly 30 percent of U-M students are food insecure and 10 percent go without food for an entire day, which can result in poor nutrition and sleep, an inability to focus, and lower graduation rates, according to Cindy Leung, an assistant professor in U-M’s Department of Nutritional Sciences and an expert on food insecurity.

“We’ve talked to so many students who are here to succeed, but dealing with food insecurity causes them to skip classes or studying because they can’t focus either from being hungry or stressing about how to stretch their food budget,” Leung said.

What’s worse, according to Leung is that students who are food insecure often hide it, contributing to common perceptions that food insecurity isn’t a problem for college students.

“In a college population, you could be living with roommates from drastically different backgrounds, making the experience of food insecurity very stigmatizing and very isolating,” Leung said. “We frequently hear food insecure students say they’re embarrassed that they don’t have the money to go out to eat with friends or easily access the supermarket, so they hide the issue, sometimes going hungry or resorting to other means to do so.” 

While roughly 11 percent of the U.S. population experiences food insecurity, college students are being affected at triple the rate. Why? Researchers aren’t exactly sure, pointing to a lack of data on the subject, but it’s clear that one reason is financial security.

As college campuses become more socioeconomically diverse, financial aid can help to offset certain costs of attendance, but for many students, the hidden expenses not covered by financial aid can leave them short on funds for necessary purchases like food and other essentials.

Lack of access to transportation combined with having limited time to shop at off-campus grocery stores or prepare meals create additional challenges for students like Wan Na Chun, a graduate student in the School of Public Health who studies nutrition.

Wan Na Chun is a student who works at and uses the Cupboard
Using the resources at the Cupboard inspired Wan Na Chun to work at the Cupboard and support others in need.

“I moved here from New York over the summer, and I don’t have a car on campus. It sometimes took over 30 minutes just to catch the bus, making it really difficult for me to rely on that to get to the nearest Kroger or Meijer,” Chun said.

Once she discovered the Cupboard, just a short walk from where she lives, things changed. 

“I remember the first time I entered the Cupboard. I was amazed at all the resources,” Chun said. “I automatically felt welcomed and also at ease knowing I could easily access groceries.”

As a student-run organization, the Cupboard hosted monthly distribution days, offering produce and groceries to students in need. The growing demand for food assistance programs on campus has since transformed the Cupboard into a comprehensive program in the Office of Student Life. In April 2019, the Cupboard moved to its new permanent home in the basement of Betsy Barbour Residence Hall. Now closer to the heart of campus, the Cupboard’s resources are even more accessible for students like Chun.

“We try to communicate that there’s no ‘wrong door’ for students to access the services they need, and we want them to be comfortable asking for help,” Mangan said. “We have students who are severely food insecure, which typically combines with housing insecurity and other obstacles caused by financial hardship that can impact students’ abilities to manage their time and funds effectively.”

Inspired by the assistance she received as a shopper at the Cupboard, Chun joined their staff in September and now serves as a graduate student intern. As the coronavirus pandemic has presented new challenges for programs across the university, Chun has continued to creatively provide services to those in need, spearheading a new virtual cooking class that showcases recipes crafted with Cupboard-friendly ingredients.

“When I’m developing recipes, I only work with a specific set of ingredients you can find at the Cupboard, and I have to keep in mind some people might not even have access to a microwave,” Chun said. “We try to focus on creating simple, nutritious recipes and offer substitutions for people that may not have access to the basic supplies that some others may have.”

As resources grow more scarce due to coronavirus, donors, volunteers, and organizations like Food Gatherers and the U-M Campus Farm continue to serve as key partners in helping to keep the Cupboard’s shelves stocked. But even as the Cupboard’s offerings continue to expand, so do the needs of students who are striving to be successful at Michigan.

Many donors have come together to help the Cupboard expand into a comprehensive program for the U-M community. Donors like John Supera (AB ’88), and Steve and Amy Don, chose to support the Cupboard after learning of the increasing demand for its services.

Student worker running the front desk
Since April 2, over 17,000 shoppers have visited the Cupboard.

As a longtime volunteer at Chicago-area food pantries, Supera is familiar with helping to fight hunger in a big city. But when he recognized students at his alma mater faced similar challenges, he was eager to get involved.

“I worked at the Maize and Blue Cupboard and was so impressed,” Supera said. “Leaders at Michigan have stepped up and made this much more than just a kitchen and food pantry, and I was moved to do more by making a gift.”

For the Don family, supporting the Cupboard allowed them to make a tangible difference in the day-to-day lives of students.

“Being a college student can be hard enough,” Steve Don said. “Students can’t take advantage of the full college experience if they’re worried about being able to get to a grocery store or how to cook a healthful meal.” 

Thanks to generous donors, the Maize and Blue Cupboard remains a steadfast resource for the campus community during uncertain and challenging times.

“Donors are extremely important to the success of literally thousands of students,” Mangan said. “We want to make sure students are able to enjoy the vibrant environment of Michigan, set themselves up to graduate, and have the nutrition they need to be successful.”

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