Thanks-Giving and Receiving: Community seeks solutions as food insecurity at K-State increases

Vickie James, coordinator for the Food and Farm Council for Riley County and the City of Manhattan, said COVID-19 brought many new hardships the previous data doesn’t reflect.(Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

About one in nine Americans struggles with hunger. Data from 2016 shows a 17.9 percent food insecurity rate in Riley County.

Vickie James, coordinator for the Food and Farm Council for Riley County and the city of Manhattan, said COVID-19 brought many new hardships the previous data doesn’t reflect.

“The food insecurity rate is a fluid thing,” James said. “From the time data is collected until it’s published, the situation changes just like that. We’re finishing up 2020, and in the last few months COVID has made a big difference in what things look like. The number of people who are struggling financially has really increased and is escalating currently.”

James said food insecurity doesn’t just apply to the homeless. Some Kansas State students who haven’t had issues in the past might be experiencing food insecurity for the first time this year because of unexpected financial challenges.

“It could be a situation where a student worked in a restaurant that had to close or lay people off because of this year, or maybe it’s students in quarantine or isolation so they can’t work and pay bills,” James said. “These financial things come on quickly and they hit really hard, especially for a population like our K-State students who maybe don’t have lots of years of savings in the bank to help them recover.”

Students’ need for support also increases around this time of year, Sarah Hoyt, operations lead at Cats’ Cupboard, said.

“From what I’ve seen, there’s peaks at the beginning and the ends of the semester,” Hoyt said. “I think people now are looking toward the break. Especially if they’re on campus, they’re going, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be available. I’d better get some now.’”

James said the holiday season also brings up concerns about extra costs, as people travel a lot more and spend money on gifts.

“That, rolled into what’s happening with COVID, just escalates the existing issue,” James said.

Despite the increased numbers of students in need around this time of the semester, Hoyt said Cats’ Cupboard is seeing fewer visitors this year because many students are learning online and don’t go on campus and remember Cats’ Cupboard when they walk by Fairchild.

“I also wonder, though no one has confirmed this with me, if there were students who were struggling financially who just didn’t come back this semester,” Hoyt said. “Not that anything has changed for us, it’s just that people’s lives have changed. We’re still here and we’re still open just as many hours — in fact we’re open more hours after 5 than we ever were before.”

Hoyt said getting donations and volunteers to help those in need was difficult at the beginning of the pandemic, but that a surge of community support around the holidays helped fill the pantry.

“Our motto is, ‘Take what you need, use what you take, and be mindful of your fellow Wildcats,’” Hoyt said. “It’s here for everyone, and it’s great seeing the way the community can come together around a cause and support each other.”

In addition to Cats’ Cupboard, members of the community and K-State have access to other resources to fight food insecurity. The website, created this fall, contains information for people in need and for those wanting to donate or volunteer.

“There are lots of different ways to volunteer food, time and dollars,” James said, “and if you can’t do that it’s okay to be on the receiving end. That’s part of the beauty of community.”

Konza Student Table, one of the organizations that serves students facing food insecurity, uses volunteers from the community and gives students from the hospitality department hands-on experience preparing the weekly evening meals and brown-bag breakfasts.

Abby Rouse, director of stewardship at St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center, oversees Konza Student Table and said that, when the service began in September, it served 300 meals each Wednesday.

“We ran out the first night,” Rouse said. “Now we’re up to 600 meals a night.”

Rouse said the Konza Student Table will continue to operate through the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks — just because school ends early doesn’t mean the need ends as well.

While students in the hospitality department help prepare the meals for Konza Student Table, students in the Staley School of Leadership Studies are also getting involved with the issue. They are learning more about food insecurity in the area and seeking solutions, Amanda Cebula, who teaches three sections of LEAD 212, said.

“A study done by the Cats’ Cupboard a few years back shows that 40 percent of our K-State population faces food insecurity,” Cebula said. “So even thinking of a class of 100 students, which would be pretty common for LEAD 212, 40 of that 100 could potentially be impacted by food insecurity.”

Cebula said the leadership department is always heavily involved with fighting food insecurity in the area, and in a typical year her students would participate in Cats for Cans, collecting goods from each neighborhood in Manhattan then donating them to the Flint Hills Breadbasket. But this is not a typical year, and COVID-19 is causing Cebula’s students to take a new look at the issue of food insecurity.

“This semester for our sections, we’re actually having students pick apart the process that we’ve done for the last 20 years,” Cebula said. “The students right now are pulling apart all of what was good about what we’ve done, and how we could change for the future.”

Cebula said the purpose of this semester’s activity was to help her students learn about leadership while working with others to make a plan about a really tough issue.

“But who knows, maybe we’ll hear something in those plans that helps us strengthen our program in the future when we’re able to go out in the community again,” Cebula said.

James said as people turn their minds towards Thanksgiving and the holiday season, they might begin to experience a strong desire to give back to the community.

“I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to give to consider how they can do that, whether it’s putting food in a blessing box around town, or donating to food drives, or volunteering at Konza Student Table or otherwise in the community,” James said.

Rouse said that serving others is the most life-giving part of her job and that as a Catholic, she’s called to feed the hungry.

“It’s just a great way to interact with people who I don’t regularly interact with,” Rouse said. “I get to ask them how they’re doing and smile — with my eyes — and just know that I’m doing something that’s helpful and nourishing not only for their body but for their soul as well. I feel like with the human interaction and people who are happy to be there, it’s not something that you get to encounter a lot these days anywhere else.”