Ellen, a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, says ever since she started college, she’s been hiding a secret from her family, friends and colleagues.
Her secret is that she is food insecure. From the start, she was on her own as her parents were not able to offer her any help financially.
Ellen said, “I didn’t have a job for a while when I first started college, and money was really tight. Even when I got a job, I just couldn’t make enough money to afford things, especially food.”
Ellen, who works in retail, doesn’t get enough hours or money as she struggles to pay for her new apartment which has a higher rent and other expenses such as tuition. College has been a barrier for her as she struggles to find time to work as her classes are scheduled with weird gaps in between or at inconvenient times.
Ellen, when asked what her lowest point was, said, “I remember, there was one night specifically last January or February, I remember driving home from work and wondering if I had enough coins, and if I could find enough coins in my car to go buy some ramen from the store so I could eat.”
Ellen is not alone, as many college students at MNSU and in Mankato struggle with food insecurity on a daily basis.
Blue Earth County has the third highest poverty rate in the whole county and state.
According to the 2018 U.S. Census, the percentage of persons living in poverty in Blue Earth County was 16.3% compared to the national average of 11.8%.
Deisy De Leon Esqueda, the Manager of the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, said, “We have a high poverty rate, and because of that we’re going to have a high food insecurity rate as well.”
ECHO food shelf wants to help resolve food insecurity by providing residents of Blue Earth County food assistance.
Esqueda said, “Our main goal is to be able to provide emergency food assistance to families who are having a rough time or just to anyone who needs it.”
The process for receiving help from ECHO Food Shelf is simple, as all one would have to do is fill out an application during open hours. Once that is done, based on the application and current needs, the person is then eligible for certain programs the food shelf has to offer.
The main program is their regular food program that a client can utilize once a month and pick up items such as dried goods, canned goods, eggs, meat, bakery, bread and fresh produce.
The application takes an average of five to 10 minutes to fill out, and a half hour after to get the food that you need.
Ellen who uses the food shelf was almost moved to tears during her first visit. She said, “I went in with one little bag, not expecting much, but there was so much, I got so much from them. And honestly, I wanted to cry. I was so overwhelmed.”
She continued, “Ever since I moved out from my parent’s home and not really being able to afford food, always having bare cupboards, having my roommates, looking at them having full cupboards and seeing their parts of the fridge always full and mine pretty much empty, to be able to fill it up a little bit, it was overwhelming.”
Esqueda says that the number of college students attending the food shelf has risen in the last five years.
She said, “I don’t think we realize what’s going on in our environment and how things are not the way they used to be. I think when you look at a college student you see someone who is vibrant and who is healthy and capable of getting a job, but it doesn’t just come down to that, there’s so many other factors that play a role in it. For us, here at the food shelf, whether we see a senior citizen, or see a college student, they’re going to receive the same service, they’re going to see the same help.”
Esqueda said, college students using food shelves is relatively new as many don’t realize how many college students struggle with food insecurity.
Part of that is due to stigma of having food insecurity and getting help from resources such as a food shelf.
Ellen said she herself still has this stigma today. She said, “I didn’t tell anybody how much I was struggling, and even now, I signed up for SNAP, I haven’t told my parents, I haven’t told my roommates, I haven’t told anyone that I signed up for it. Even going to the food shelf, I know there’s nothing wrong with needing help, but even going to the food shelf, I walked in there and I was just embarrassed. I kept thinking I hope no one that I know shows up. I didn’t want anyone I knew to know that I was there.”
Esqueda wants people and students to know to not have that stigma be a reason to not receive help from the food shelf and other resources.
She said, “There’s always that stigma of what are people going to think of me if I use the food shelf. We don’t want anyone thinking that, we don’t want any of our clients coming through the door thinking that. We don’t want that to be a barrier for them to come here and access food.”
Despite the stigma, Ellen feels like her life has improved after finding out about resources that can help her get food and learning about others in the same situation.
She said, “I guess I didn’t realize, that it wasn’t just me who was having this problem. I thought there was something I was doing wrong and that it was my fault, but after realizing how big of a problem it is for so many people, it makes me feel a lot less alone in it.”
College students are known for the stereotype of being broke and starving as they are often seen surviving on the bare minimum often eating ramen every day. Although it is a stereotype, it’s a reality that many face.
Ellen said, “Me and a lot of people, you go into it thinking, I’m not going to be that stereotype, but you fall into it so fast, way faster than you realize. Obviously not everybody falls into that situation, but for the majority who do struggle with food insecurity I feel like that’s a part of it. You go in saying, I’m going to be just fine, and lo and behold, two weeks later, you don’t have anything to eat.”
Header photo: A volunteer at the ECHO Food Shelf stocks the produce aisle before opening Monday, Oct. 21, 2019 in Mankato, Minn. (Maria Ly/MSU Reporter)