Food insecurity is an increasing issue for students across college campuses. Around a third of students at the University of Michigan lack reliable access to enough affordable and nutritious food. To combat this, students formed the Maize & Blue Cupboard in 2014 and held monthly food distributions at the Trotter Multicultural Center. This winter, after years of gaining support across campus and expanding the initiative, the Maize & Blue Cupboard full-time food pantry opened in the basement of Betsy Barbour residence hall. I spoke with Maize & Blue Cupboard Program Manager Jessica Thompson about her professional journey, exciting happenings at the Maize & Blue Cupboard, and the intersection of sustainability and food insecurity work.
Jessica attended Michigan State University and faced her own challenges with food insecurity there. “I participated in what people used to refer to as the ‘real college student struggle,’ which was to live off of ramen. There were even times when three roommates and I would split one hot pocket four ways. I didn’t realize that there were resources available to help me.” A few years after undergrad, she began working at U-M and held various positions including work on the Medical campus and eight years with the Trotter Multicultural Center. Jessica loved being a resource and a pillar of support for young people in her role with Trotter and found it very concerning seeing how many students were coming to their programs just to find their next meal. Jessica mentioned, “When the Maize & Blue Cupboard started doing their distributions at Trotter, I took notice of how many students were coming and how quickly they were lining up to get food. It concerned me so much.” When the positioned opened with Maize & Blue Cupboard, Jessica couldn’t turn down the opportunity to serve students who need help. “Being to young folks all the things that I needed [in college] has been incredible,” She said.
The Maize and Blue cupboard is now open and has stocked shelves full of food representing every corner of the food pyramid. Anyone with a valid U-M ID can shop at the cupboard. “We want to make a food pantry that meets the needs of our students,” Jessica said. “Having a diversity of products, being very inclusive about what we have in this space, and having it be an inclusive place to walk into is important.” Jessica explained that with students dealing with food insecurity there is a strong possibility that there are other issues with students’ home lives and access to other basic goods and services. U-M central campus can fit under the definition of a “food desert” where there is a lack of access to affordable, fresh, and healthy food. Students without reliable transportation may not have the ability to go to a supermarket. Jessica said, “We are very fortunate that MDining had a space that we could take over on campus and give it a new life. It is at a great, centralized location with easy access.”
This summer, the pantry is open three days a week while there is construction in the space to add a teaching kitchen, meeting rooms, and a staff office. “We hope that in the fall we’ll be able to share [The Maize and Blue Cupboard] widely with the campus, and allow for the teaching kitchen to be a space where both incredible dining staff can come in and teach some classes on cooking, and also where students can come in and engage in the cultural expressions of food.” She added “I am excited to start thinking about what kind of nutrition curriculum we could put together, what are some of the amazing programs we can do in and out of the space, and then bringing in new partners who are not yet at the table.”
Jessica is proud of the way that U-M is tackling the issue of food insecurity. “We have spent some time learning about how food insecurity shows up in higher ed and in other spaces. And what we know is that we need to design this to meet the unique needs of students here at U-M,” said Jessica. “We can no longer act as if we don’t know that [food insecurity] is real, so now we are mobilizing ourselves in a way to be able to chip away at the issue.” She added, “As the years roll on, we need to align ourselves with as many partners as we possibly can to give this thing wings so it takes flight. The only way to resolve this issue of food insecurity is to really start to think about who needs to be at the table discussing the issue and what are the layers working against us.”
Jessica wants the Maize and Blue Cupboard to be a model of sustainability on campus. She’s working toward making a sustainable space by looking at how they handle food products and waste, choosing the vendors they work with, and how they set up the bagging. “We had reusable bags that were donated to us from the campus farm, and I was so encouraged and amazed by the number of students that were coming in and taking them. We always said ‘If you take one, please bring it back the next time you shop.’ So many students were mindful of that, and they were bringing their bag back and when the school year ended many students returned their bags.”
If you have any interest in learning more or getting involved in the Maize and Blue Cupboard, Jessica says you should just stop in and check out the space and meet with her! “I want thought partners with me shouldering this work. I want to know what is your commitment to food insecurity and that we can align our mission with the passion.”