Donations crowd the student pantry

Shayla Fox is impressed with the amount of donations to the Yellowjacket Emergency Pantry – many of which come from MSUB staff and faculty.

Shayla Fox wants Montana State University Billings students to have the support they need in and out of the classroom.

“If we’re encouraging student success, we need to look at the whole student picture – a holistic approach,” said Fox, volunteer engagement coordinator in the Office for Community Involvement.

It’s no mystery that college is expensive. What is less obvious is that some students struggle to pay for their education while trying to afford basic necessities, like food.

With the help of her colleagues, a lifetime of community involvement experience and collaboration with Billings non-profit organizations, Fox started the Yellowjacket Emergency Pantry to address the issue of hunger at MSUB.

The promise

The pantry targets students in crisis.

They can access the pantry as many as three times per semester, with additional options during holidays and breaks. A student can take 10 to 25 food items, depending on family size. Food near expiration and hygiene materials are free and not counted against the total.

Pantry users complete a short application and show a photo ID with their class schedule. They receive grocery bags and “shop” with a list explaining what food they can take.

“People like that they can dig through the items and choose the things they like and want,” said Fox.

The pantry is a confidential program, but Fox says using it is nothing to be ashamed of. She is working to abolish the stigma related to need-based food services and notes that students of all backgrounds come to the pantry for help.

An adult learner turned to Fox last fall to feed her family of five. Her husband is in the concrete business and consistent work depends on weather and permits.

“Sometimes he gets really good paychecks, and sometimes we have to scrounge and do what we can,” she said. “You can still make too much (money) to qualify for food stamps, but it doesn’t mean you actually have enough to feed your family.”

When students don’t qualify for outside benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the pantry is available.

“When I found out about (the pantry), it was helpful to know there was a place we could go when we needed it.”

The student said the environment was welcoming. She didn’t feel judged for requesting food.

“They just asked how they could help with a big smile on their face,” she said.

It takes a village

Fox did not start the pantry alone. Along with the Student Union and Activities and Housing and Residential Life offices, she collaborated with a student representative from a MSUB course in hunger and food security.

She turned to existing programs in the Magic City for additional guidance and partnership.

“The goal was not to recreate great services already offered,” said Fox.

Though the pantry helps students in immediate need of a meal, she refers them elsewhere when they experience consistent food shortage or request other items, like clothing.

“(The pantry) is not a long-term solution,” said Fox. “Referring students is probably one of my main (jobs).”

Partnering with local resources, like Family Service, Inc. and Tumbleweed, makes the pantry a unique entity. Any items not needed at MSUB, like a recent surplus of canned corn, are sent to other programs.

The majority of donations come from MSUB faculty and staff. Students appreciate knowing that employees on campus support them.

“It’s really cool to see people’s generosity,” said Fox. “That someone cares and can acknowledge that (students) have more going on than just school.”

Looking ahead

Fox has a vision for the future of the pantry, starting with an expansion to the City College campus on Billings’ West End.

She also wants to educate students on best practices in grocery shopping and food preparation. Budgeting classes related to those skills are coming soon.

Fox plans to work with MSUB’s Student Health Services to learn more about nutrition. She already encourages donors to provide healthy options and students to be mindful of what they eat.

To continue thriving, the service needs steady donations and volunteers. Donated items can be sent directly to Fox’s office in the MSUB Student Union building at 1500 University Dr. The pantry is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Look for more information on the Office for Community Involvement website and Facebook page.