Getting Food to Students in Need

Originally formed to provide gently used clothing to students in need, the Carlow Closet was expanded this year to include nonperishable food items. Food scarcity is a problem for many college students today, and Carlow Magazine sat down with JANICE MCCALL, PHD, LSW to talk about the reasons for this.

Carlow University Magazine: How real is the problem of food scarcity on college campuses right now? Is there a reason this has come to light?

McCall: We work in higher education. It behooves us to know these sorts of issues for our students so they can be more successful. The issue of food scarcity and hunger has been around forever. It was in the 1990s when it became a source for data collection.

Carlow University Magazine: Was there an “a-ha” moment that led you to expand the Carlow Closet to include nonperishable food items, or was it just a natural evolution?

McCall: I’ve been at Carlow since 2017, and around that time, Sara Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues at Wisconsin Hope Lab came out with their massive report about the state of collegiate basic needs. Around that time the University of Pittsburgh had their first annual regional conference about having this conversation. As I would read these reports, it became very clear to me that many of the most vulnerable groups around basic needs and securities are very much on our own campus. Our mission is so well aligned with taking care of our students and our community, I thought, ‘What the heck are we doing about this issue?’ There was a grant opportunity for me to build off of what we had here at Carlow. I learned there was a clothing closet to collect items that students had at the end of the term and maybe didn’t want to take home with them. The grant allowed us to expand that, so the “a-ha” was really the timing; knowing the existing population of our students and seizing on the grant opportunity. I teach grant writing here, so I’m always looking for opportunities to use existing resources and also someone else’s money to address how do we serve our students in a better way.

Carlow University Magazine: How has the Carlow Closet been received by students? And is it possible to quantify the need on campus?

McCall: I would say now we have a fairly consistent number of students who are returning users. We have achieved some sort of status on campus. I’m pretty comfortable to say that most people know what it is, or, at least, know where to go if they need help. I think it has been well received by students. Quantifying need … the literature always talks about number of orders filled, pounds distributed or number of new faces, and that’s important, but, in the end, I think what’s more important for me is, do our students know where to go, have we empowered them with questions to ask, places to go, skills to use, so that maybe they don’t have to use the Closet, right?

Carlow University Magazine: Aside from creating something like the Carlow Closet, are there other ways to address the problem of food scarcity among college students?

McCall: The neat thing about the Closet is that it still serves those basic human needs, regardless of who the student is. They could easily be one paycheck away from a catastrophic life event, so that’s a nice unifying factor. So if we maintain the messaging so that we are non-threatening, that’s one way to talk about it. Find safe spaces on campus so you’re kind of lumped in with the other student supports. It’s nice if I can talk to our residence life office or disability services or our health office, and I’m happy to reach out to those colleagues to collaborate. It’s never an issue about “who are your students and who are my students.” It’s a lot more students than we think. Collegiate food insecurity can affect anywhere from one-third of college students in some studies all the way up to 70 percent at other colleges. I think at our college, it is somewhere around 30 percent, if not more, depending on the pocket of students that are using it, but any number in that range is something we can change. I try to adhere to our theme, stating clearly that it is about hospitality. It’s really about welcoming that student and making sure that they feel welcome on campus. I would hate for a student to feel that just because they can’t afford food, they don’t feel connected to the campus.

For more information about the Carlow Closet, email