With grocery costs notably greater in the heart of campus, two University of Illinois programs are dedicated to providing food assistance to students in need.
In the fall of 2020, the Food Assistance and Wellbeing program at the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) and the Everybody Eats program at Bevier Cafe began providing food for members of the university community at little to no cost.
Both programs employ a different approach to visitors getting a meal or groceries, attempting to eliminate any stigma associated with using a food assistance program. The programs help counter the higher costs of groceries in the university area.
A CU-CitizenAccess review of identical brands at five grocery stores found that food items sold in Campustown can be anywhere from 10 cents to $3 more than off-campus stores.
For example, bread at the off-campus Champaign Walmart is $2.93 compared to $3.29 at the campustown Target. A 16-count pack of cheese singles at the off-campus Aldi is $2.09 compared to $5.49 at the nearby County Market.
Price disparities also appear between the Campustown Target and the off-campus Champaign Target, with eggs sold at $3.19 on campus and $2.99 off-campus.
Representatives from Target and County Market did not respond to requests for comment on why grocery prices are higher in Campustown.
A recent survey of University of Illinois students found 22% of respondents had experienced food insecurity within the past year. Ana Mitchell, a graduate research fellow at the National Science Foundation, and co-authors Brenna Ellison and Meg Bruening gathered 888 surveys from undergraduates and graduates at the university.
Bevier’s approach to serving affordable meals
At Bevier Cafe, visitors have a few options. Everybody Eats Program Supervisor Jorden Brotherton said because it is a restaurant, people can pay the listed price if they can. They can also pay it forward to the next person. But if they cannot afford it, they can eat for free.
For these free meals, visitors take a token from a bowl and present it to the cashier for any meal and drink on the menu; a token is the equivalent of about $12. However, the tokens are not only used by those in need.
Brotherton, a professor of hospitality at the university, said this helps curb any insecurities tied to the stigma of receiving food assistance.
“My favorite part about the tokens…is that those tokens aren’t only used by people who need a free meal,” he said. “We sell them to individuals as gift cards; we sell them to RSOs, so anybody who wants to gift a meal to someone. So, our cashiers and our students, they don’t know the difference between someone using a token because they were gifted it versus someone who’s using a token because they need it.”
Morgan Mouser, a freshman at the university, eats at Bevier Cafe once a week. Mouser said she tries to pay it forward whenever she buys a meal for herself.
“I round up whenever I eat here just because…you never what somebody’s going through; you never know what they may be able to have access to,” she said. “I love that they do this here because it makes sure that everyone who goes here will have access to fresh hot meals.
Mouser also expressed her love for the food at Bevier, mentioning that it is one of the best meals she has during the week.
ARC program aims to give visitors a choice
At the ARC, the Food Assistance and Wellbeing program creates a grocery store atmosphere for its visitors. Shelves are stocked with groceries, and bags are provided for guests who are ready to shop.
“We really wanted to create an environment that is stigma-free, and having a choice pantry can help address the stigma,” Rachel Yang, the program’s supervisor, said. “There’s also trying to be accommodating to the wide dietary choices people have, so that’s why we make it more like a choice pantry instead of allocating a certain amount of items to you.”
Yang said the program was started due to a recognized need for an accessible pantry with students in mind.
“We definitely noticed a need regarding basic needs and then the need for nutritional food access on campus, so that’s why we developed this program,” she said.
She mentioned that its location at the ARC is ideal for students who would otherwise have to travel off-campus to get affordable groceries.
One graduate student, who preferred to remain anonymous, has visited the pantry three times.
“I’m a graduate student and my stipend is not enough to pay for everything, so I really appreciate that their resources are available for students. They don’t really ask for any proof — how poor you are basically. You can just come and say, ‘I need it,’ and they give you things,” they said.
The student discussed their shopping experiences on and off campus, stating that their preferred store to shop at is Walmart, ￼but said they can rarely travel off-campus to the store. They said that, on campus, groceries can be few and expensive.
“Sometimes I go to Schnucks, but only for very urgent stuff because it is a little bit more expensive to me,” they said. “Another problem is that I feel like on campus, stores are always empty. Whenever I come, there is nothing there.”
Programs prioritize student needs
At Bevier Cafe, Brotherton realized the need for Everybody Eats when he and Quantity Food manager Carter Phillips spoke with one of their students who revealed his struggles.
“He’s like ‘There have been days when I was walking around; I’ve been walking to class, and I’ve had to sit down because I was so dizzy from not eating,’ and Carter and I are like there are hungry students in the classroom with us and we didn’t know,” he said.
Since the programs began, both have seen an increase in visitors over time.
Yang said, initially, about 20 people visited the ARC’s pantry, but now anywhere between 35 to 45 people visit the pantry each opening day — Tuesday and Thursday.
With Everybody Eats, Brotherton said five to 10 people use tokens each day, an increase from last year’s two or three.
Both programs hope to soon reach more people at the University of Illinois.
“So many people tell us when they come to visit us for the first time, ‘Hey, this is like the best-kept secret on campus.’ But we don’t really want to be a secret,” Brotherton said.