Food deserts and food insecurity are pain points here in North Carolina and across the nation. Sowing resilience by meeting these challenges often requires complex solutions; however, by directly addressing these issues, rather than cowering in fear, we can discover solutions to real problems that impact the lives of real people every day. 

One sector of the population significantly impacted by food deserts that is often overlooked is college students. Kamren Lewis, Care Resource Center coordinator at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke (UNCP), works to help college students and community members who are impacted by food insecurity every day. He experienced food insecurity firsthand for the first time himself when he was the college student. The Care Research Center Coordinator serves students at UNCP, Robeson Community College (RCC), and residents of Robeson County. 

“Once I personally learned about the food pantry, I was just amazed about what it had,” Lewis told the Carolina Journal. “I had never heard of this type of food pantry. I remember the first day I went in there, and I was able to come out with some snacks that you would normally have to buy from Walmart.”

He recalled how his suite-mates were so curious about where he’d gotten these food items when he returned from the food pantry. 

Kamren Lewis, Coordinator for UNCP Care Resource Center

“So this kind of just spread awareness of it; I just don’t think as a student you realize how many students are actually in need or don’t have access to food,” said Lewis. “It’s pretty easy to go about your day on a day-to-day basis just to only have one meal or even have half a minute that you know if you’re not eating the right things or eating the amount that you’re supposed to eat that’s a level of food security is the level of food insecurity that you have going on with your daily diet.”

While most students have a voucher card that they can use to purchase meals, there is a limited amount of funds per semester on the card — and once they’re gone, they’re gone. 

“With our food pantry, we’ve kind of been able to, last semester, were able to provide a couple of mobile pantries (on-the-go tables),” said Lewis. “So many students are going class-to-class, or they have a small break between classes. They come by this quick little table to gain some quick little nutrients, quick snacks, some type of drinks, or other types of refreshments. So, they’re able to keep on going, and it’s all free of charge, and they won’t have to stop and wait in line for 10 minutes. So something kind of quick and easy for them.”

Part of the problem with food insecurity is the stigma and the shame surrounding it, especially for college students. 

“So something that we’ve done is trying to have more of the peer-to-peer support,” explained Lewis. “I’ve been a student before, and I can tell students that too, but you know, that can only go so far. But once a student, an actual student who’s in the same graduation class or possibly in the same class as you are, once you want to kind of get that same message from them and know that a resource was able to help them out and can possibly help you out as well. I think the message kind of just hits a little different.  With the students that we have now, or I think students in general, the first two years, you know, they’re trying to figure out how their friends are feeling towards them.” 

Often, students don’t know how to ask for resources or help for their issues. UNCP has created a student coalition group with grant funding where students can speak with their peers about their problems. 

“So, where students are able to pretty much form a coalition among their own peers, and pretty much hear out different voices and different concerns that people are going through,” Lewis said. “I’m on the college campus because, again, I can only think about so much that I know when I was a student. But something may be different tomorrow that students are hearing about what students are facing, that we’re able to address. So, we do have a student support specialist, so she’s really our main person on campus, you know, to provide that information and provide resources.”

Mr. Lewis was a student at UNCP during the pandemic and addressed how he has seen food insecurity develop before and since. 

“I think the need has been higher since COVID-19 and since, really, inflation,” Lewis pointed out. “Ever since COVID-19 happened, all the prices have been going up, and you can’t get the same amount you were able to get for $1 [then], for $1 today.”

During the 2022 academic year (July 2021-June 2022); the resource center had 2400 visits, 3900 in the 2023 academic year (July 2022-June 2023); and, 4241 as of April 30 of this year’s academic year. This represents a 90% increase from 2023. The Center’s goal is to reach 5500 visits by the end of the academic year.