Use of the UI food pantry is up, with international students disproportionately relying on the support

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Rajorshi Das had visited the University of Iowa’s food pantry before, mostly out of curiosity. But rising food costs have since made it difficult to buy kitchen staples, even from supermarkets like Aldi and Walmart. So they’ve gone to the food pantry more and more, now out of necessity.

“I have seen a very discernible change in prices of food that I eat, like milk, eggs, very basic stuff,” said Das, an international student from Kolkata, India, and graduate instructor in the English department. “This semester, I’ve already been there, I think four times.”

The food pantry provides canned goods and fresh vegetables and fruit as well as sponsoring programs like the emergency fund and Hawkeye Meal Share, where students can donate unused meals at the residence halls to other students. The pantry open to anyone with a university ID, from undergraduate, graduate and professional students, to faculty and staff. But in the 2021-2022 school year, international students made up nearly 40 percent of unique visitors, despite only representing around 7 percent of the student body.

“The amount of financial burden on grad students is really significant,” said Stephanie Beecher, the basic needs coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students. “It’s kind of crazy. At the beginning of the week, we’re fully stocked, and then by our last shift — our first shift is Tuesday evening and last shift is Thursday — it’s just completely empty. It doesn’t matter what foods are stocked. They just tend to be emptied.”

The food pantry was created by a group of students in 2016, and it’s still student-run today, along with Beecher who oversees the operation, an assistant and volunteers. The team collects food from Table to Table and Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) every Wednesday, but the variety is always a “crapshoot.” They’ll fill in the nutritional gaps with food from Hy-Vee, Kwik Trip, Walmart and Chong’s Supermarket.

University members can browse through the pantry’s six freezer fridges once a week, with limits on certain scarce items. Visitors can only pick two international items and one carton of eggs, for example. The pantry has distributed nearly 240,000 pounds of food to over 1,500 unique visitors since its inception. Graduate and professional students have received the most donations, almost 90,000 pounds of food.

Monthly visits were relatively low prior to the pandemic, but the numbers jumped in the fall 2020 semester, topping 500 visits for the first time, where it hovered in 2021 before increasing again in 2022. Beecher attributes the recent rise to COVID-19, economic inflation and more awareness of the food pantry. Students, faculty and staff are less ashamed and more willing to seek help, she said.

“The need’s always been there. COVID just kind of peeled back the layer to allow us to see that need and to serve that need,” Beecher said. “I think there’s pandemic lingerings, which also feeds into inflation, for sure.”

The pandemic hit Das’s father in India, closing his job for over two years. Das couldn’t go home in summer of 2020, and they struggled with social isolation. Das tried to support the family when they could, but without any savings, Das spent hours just managing their own finances in Iowa City. Das moved in with a friend to cut costs, and the two started using the food pantry. Das knows plenty of pantry regulars who support families, undergraduate students and, frequently, other international students.

Tuition for UI’s international students can cost between $30,000 to $40,000, depending on their area of study, enrollment hours and employment status. International students pay around $2,000 in additional fees, like domestic students, but must also pay a $250 international student fee and a $120 international orientation fee.

The United States has strict visa requirements for international students. Those on F-1 and M-1 visas cannot hold off-campus jobs, barring some exceptions for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). International students are dependent on campus stipends and salaries, fellowships grants and scholarships, making academic breaks especially frugal. Das has used scholarship funds to help pay bills.

“I got a scholarship, so I was able to use some of that money to pay it off. But that’s again, not a solution, right?” they said. “I don’t want to rely on scholarship money. I want to save that for the research trips, for the stuff that actually it should be for.”

Beecher would like to see more monetary donations to help support the food pantry, from community members, Iowa alums and other departments. The pantry currently receives funding from the UI Faculty Senate, Undergraduate Student Government, the Office of the Dean of Students (which pays for Beecher’s position) and the Center for Advancement, but the amount can change year to year.

“It’s just been incredibly awesome to see the support from the institution kind of coming in and helping us take the food pantry to another level,” she said. “We’re going to go for paid student positions […] so we’re not completely relying on volunteers. Although volunteers are great, and we always want volunteers, it just gives us that stability so we can provide this resource day in and day out for people.”

But Das thinks the food pantry can’t solve the underlying problem: the salary for graduate students just isn’t in sync with the cost of living.

“The pantries, after all, depend on the generosity of people. It’s not sustainable. It’s not a solution that will be there long term,” Das said. “I’m not that okay with relying on the generosity of people to eat or cook … Because it’s not just food, right? It’s also housing. The housing costs have gone up.”

UI and the Iowa Board of Regents will begin contract negotiations with the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS, UE Local 896) in January.

The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) protests outside the Board of Regents meeting at Levitt Center on Tuesday, May 31, 2022. COGS is advocating for a cost of living adjusted raise in their next contract. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

On Thursday, Dec. 8, COGS held a Rally for a Real Raise on the Pentacrest. For months, the union has advocated for a cost-of-living raise. They’re currently asking for a 10 percent to account for inflation. COGS’ previous contract included a 1.3 percent raise each year, but after protesting last summer, it was bumped up to 2 percent.

“I don’t see why the university cannot give us the raise,” Das said. “I feel like the Board of Regents is not really seeing it as a problem, but more as something which will take care of itself.”

Das thinks the university could also remove the international student fees and offer parking discounts to help reduce the burden. But those measures can’t replace a higher salary, they said.

“If you’re going to pay administrators in, I don’t know, millions, don’t give us peanuts.”

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