HASTINGS, Neb. — No matter the age of the student, instructor Susan Oliver knows studying and learning are a challenge on an empty stomach.
It was with that in mind that she and a few other staff members at Central Community College-Hastings opened the Central Closet this semester.
The closet, which opened in January, is a space filled with food and hygiene products, in addition to a few clothing items, for CCC-Hastings students in need, the Hastings Tribune reported.
“As an educator, I can say it’s really difficult to focus when you’re hungry,” Oliver said. “I think because of the level of poverty we have, particularly in our elementary schools, the need is probably there.”
Oliver serves on the advisory board of the Food4Thought backpack program that sends backpacks full of food home with elementary students in Hastings each Friday.
Oliver said that led her to think about students who are hungry, including middle and high school students and then those in college. That’s when she began to think about her own students at CCC-Hastings.
Last fall, Oliver worked with fellow staff member Lauren Slaughter to find the space and start gathering donations for the Central Closet.
Slaughter runs ProjectHELP on the Hastings campus, which is a program that helps get students through a health care education program with the help of additional financial support. That includes everything from providing books and tuition to their scrubs and even sometimes computers and gas cards.
Oliver believes many of the more than a dozen different students who have visited the pantry each month have come from the HELP program, although she doesn’t know for sure.
Oliver said she doesn’t ask for any information before allowing a student to access the food pantry. She said the point is to help those in need – whether they live on campus or somewhere else and regardless of their financial situation.
At this point, there have been between 10 and 20 students visiting each month, taking anywhere from eight to 20 food items and another one to 10 hygiene items.
“It’s a total choice pantry,” Oliver said. “You can take as much as you need.”
Oliver hopes to soon acquire an iPad for users to take a survey before they leave to indicate the types of items they took, what they were looking for in the pantry and things they would like to see that aren’t already there.
So far, everything in the pantry has been donated. In fact, a student leadership organization on campus is currently hosting a hygiene drive to collect items for the pantry.
Oliver recently applied for and was awarded a mini grant from the college that she is hoping to use to purchase a freezer and some frozen vegetables and meat to add to the pantry.
Next fall, Oliver plans to pair with the South Heartland District Health Department to create a meal-of-the-month in which there would be all the ingredients and recipe for a meal that students could take home and prepare.
“So this month it could be chicken and broccoli so we give them a bag of frozen broccoli, a can of chicken and maybe some pasta and they can have a meal they can eat,” she said.
Oliver said she’s excited to use part of the grant funds to purchase frozen vegetables for the pantry.
“It’s better than only giving them cans of ravioli and ramen noodles,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with ravioli and ramen noodles but we would like to provide them with some other opportunities.”
She hopes to someday be able to give out vouchers for things like eggs and milk.
The closet is open by appointment only. Students are encouraged to call one of the three staff members to get into the closet.
“We saw an influx the week before spring break of students heading home who maybe were heading to a home that has a hard time feeding the members who are there,” Oliver said.
She said she’s been excited to see some users of the pantry who have come back again and again. All have been thankful and humbled by the pantry’s offerings.