by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Ayjai Daniel had lost her job and was in the process of starting a new one. Income was tight. She wanted to make sure her daughter had plenty to eat, so she turned to one of Minnesota State College Southeast’s (MSC Southeast) food pantries for some help.
As the current MSC Southeast Student Senate Vice President and a student studying computer-aided drafting, Daniel works to support the food pantries. She is even growing everything from carrots to cucumbers and peas in her own garden so she can donate them to the pantries later this year. “The only thing about it I’d like to make clear is people shouldn’t be ashamed to use it,” Daniel said. “It’s there and open. People shouldn’t be afraid to be classified in a certain manner because they use it, because everyone needs help at some point in time.”
MSC Southeast’s Winona and Red Wing campuses each have a food pantry. All students and staff members may access the food pantries. “They can just go and get whatever they need, when they need it, no questions asked,” Basic Needs Outreach Specialist Akilah Childs said.
At the food pantries, MSC Southeast community members can find grocery items including bread, milk, yogurt, eggs, beef, fresh fruit, pasta, rice, beans, oatmeal and granola bars. They can also find toiletries, laundry detergent and products for young children. “One of the things, just as a single parent myself, that I wanted to make sure was in there was diapers and wipes and baby food, so families don’t have to choose between food and diapers,” Childs said.
Slightly more than 30 percent of MSC Southeast students experience poverty, according to internal data collected before the pandemic, Academic Success Coordinator Arielle Pompilius said. “Providing food security is huge for people,” Childs stated. “If you’re not being fed, and you’re not eating, how are you expected to succeed, especially… academically? How are you able to feel okay to study, and to graduate, and to get a better job to move up?”
Though the college is currently collecting data about how the pandemic has impacted students’ need for the food pantries, MSC Southeast has received feedback from some students noting they never had to rely on the food pantries before, but they do now because of the pandemic, Pompilius said. The college has also received feedback from other students stating that food insecurity was a problem for them prior to the pandemic, but it is worse now, Pompilius said. The pandemic has “significantly increased the need in our student community, I would say,” she stated.
MSC Southeast staff purchase the items for the food pantries with funding from grants and donations to the college’s foundation. The college has also partnered with the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Through that program, Childs plans to develop connections with community organizations to help the college hold events such as food drives.
During day-to-day efforts to keep the food pantries stocked, some of the brightest moments happen when students thank Childs for the items they get from them. “That’s probably the most rewarding,” Childs said. She also enjoys connecting with students on a personal level when they email her to request specific items they need.
When considering long-term hopes for the food pantries’ success, Pompilius wants them to become sustainable, integral pieces of the college’s programming. She also wants to normalize using them so it becomes as typical a part of receiving an education at MSC Southeast as going to a tutoring session or a professor’s office hours. “We want to create an environment in the pantries where everyone feels comfortable using them,” Pompilius said.