Omaha college pantry fights student hunger

Since opening the pantry, students are performing better.
A food pantry is helping college students in need
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 10:59 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - For students who are the first in their family to attend college or with tough financial circumstances, the odds are against them.

But Nebraska Methodist College has found its humble food pantry has opened the door to academic success. When it comes to food insecurity and empty cupboards, Dr. Lisa Johnson says there should be no shame or stereotype.

It took students to bring that to light.

“More than 45% of college students are food insecure at one point or another in their lives,” Johnson said. “So to think that we kind of hide it and make it something that people shouldn’t feel open to seek out...or as an afterthought, that’s not the way of handling this.”

Johnson runs the Trio program at Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha which provides Student Support Services (SSS) to first-generation and low-income students as well as students with disabilities.

As the director, Johnson started “handling this” one kindness at a time.

“Students were coming to her office and they’re hungry and they wouldn’t have time for breakfast,” Nebraska Methodist College president and CEO Deb Carlson said. “[Johnson] would say ‘you’re gonna be here from 6:30 in the morning all day without food?’ And they were like, ‘I can do it!’ so she started having things just in her office drawer, so she pulled open the office drawer and would give them something to eat.”

“When my husband and I were going to grad school getting our doctoral degrees and we were in that place of living in poverty, our priority was to keep our house and feed our kids,” Johnson said. “So I completely empathize with what students are going through when they really are struggling to make ends meet and just show up for class because they know that education is a pathway out. I just thought at the time when my husband and I were in need, somebody helped us. So this is my opportunity to give back.”

For the first two years, Lisa kept fortifying her students’ efforts out of her office. She soon got help, and eventually, a room to house a pantry.

“We started finding out about it and so the rest of faculty and staff started bringing food,” Carlson said. “For the first year, it was totally supported by faculty and staff. Then we realized that it’s a much bigger need than just a few students that need a snack before they go to class.”

“There were students that were not eating, giving their food to their kids because our kids are the first priority,” Carlson continued. “But when they’re passing out during clinicals because they don’t even have crackers in there to eat.”

“If you’ve never been there it’s hard to think that there’s nothing in your cupboard but when they say there’s nothing in their cupboard, there’s nothing in their cupboard.”

Since opening the pantry, students are performing better. In fact, the SSS programs have a significant impact on student success. Graduation rates have improved from 53% before SSS to 98% after.

In fact, the program, and the positive experience enjoyed by students like Alicia Hicks, are becoming a positive for recruiting students.

“We all go through struggles, we all need help and assistance at some point, some of us who are raising families, some of us who are leaving home for the first time,” Hicks said. “So having a community here at Methodist that offers a food pantry, for those people to know, to have the comfort in their home to have food, and be able to eat, your studies fall into line after that.”

As a student and mom in her 30s, Hicks was looking for a place to pursue her dream of a nursing degree. She was living in California at the time, but the compassion she saw in the program at Nebraska Methodist brought her to Omaha. Now she wants the world to know about the food pantry and how it can change the lives of college students.

“We went from a desk drawer to this and I think that this is huge and should be known,” she said. “It’s open, the door’s always open.”

The Kountze Commons provides much of the food in the school’s pantry with donations from Hy-Vee and Rotella’s Bakery providing fresh food.