The Open Seat Food Pantry serves food-insecure students at UW-Madison.

Sara Goldrick-Rab has long been on the front lines of advocating for low-income and food-insecure college students, but even for an expert like her, this past week has been uncharted terrain.

When the former University of Wisconsin-Madison professor heard on March 10 that Harvard University was asking students to move out, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly took on a new form — a crisis threatening not only national health, but higher education. In the days since, colleges have been rapidly shutting down student housing and in-person instruction at over 100 institutions, leaving students without secure jobs, food or housing.

“All of a sudden, it really hit me what was going to happen here,” said Goldrick-Rab, who has pioneered conversations about food security through her #RealCollege movement. "It did take me a minute before I really realized that the stuff that we’d been working on for all these years — the food and the housing and everything — was going to collide with the COVID stuff.”

Within hours, Goldrick-Rab, who now teaches higher education and sociology at Temple University and directs its Hope Center, wrote and published a guide for colleges on how to support students during the crisis. The next day, she and her peers came up with the Student Relief Fund, which has since raised over $20,000 and offered assistance to over 100 students from about 70 institutions,

Twelve percent of UW-Madison students have reported not always being able to afford sufficient food and housing, according to the school's 2016 climate survey. LGBTQ students, students of color and students with disabilities were all more likely to report higher rates of food and housing insecurity.

One resource at UW-Madison, located on the fourth floor of the Student Activity Center, is the Open Seat Food Pantry, which serves high numbers of international and graduate students, said senior and director Yogev Ben-Yitschak. This semester, Open Seat planned to move into a larger space and host a Day of the Badger fundraiser, but after the university announced on Wednesday that all in-person classes will be suspended through spring, it is reevaluating its options.

“There’s going to be a lot more users, and we’re just not going to have the resources to keep up,” Ben-Yitschak said. “We’ll probably need to cut back on how much we give to one person, ask for more money from ASM and the university. I feel for a lot of students. I’m afraid that the worst is yet to come.”

The pantry, which served over 300 students this year, plans to open in a temporary location for the remainder of spring. Instead of allowing users to pick out items, Ben-Yitschak said, it may pre-package and distribute them.

Lydia Zepeda, professor emerita and food researcher, said that COVID-19 will put many people who were already struggling over the edge. 

“What I’ve found with interviews with people who are food insecure is they are incredible food and money managers,” Zepeda said. “They know where all the sales are, they know where they need to get food, they have a system. And that system right now is really being disrupted.”

On Tuesday, Goldrick-Rab heard from a UW-Madison student living with her grandmother who needed new housing to prevent putting her at risk of contracting COVID-19. After googling an emergency aid fund, she was “pretty surprised” to find that there was no single, central portal for students affected by the pandemic.

Many other institutions have one accessible link for emergency aid, Goldrick-Rab said, suggesting that UW-Madison put a large statement on the front page of its COVID-19 website. Currently, the FAQ section includes a “financial matters” section that lists options including the financial aid office, dean of students office, international student resources and individual schools or colleges.

“The number-one thing a college should be doing is making it as easy as possible for students to find and access help,” Goldrick-Rab said. “If I were a student freaking out, I would not be looking under FAQ … Scarcity and stress reduce executive functioning. You have to reduce students’ barriers to getting support.”

University spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said in an email that “we know that students have a variety of needs — financial, housing, technological, educational, health and mental health — and we’re in touch with them daily via email and social media.” She added that the financial aid office has a single form for all students, including those who have not previously sought financial aid, and should be the first point of contact.

The university also frequently shares online messages from Open Seat to raise awareness about resources, Ben-Yitschak said.

Much of student support is rooted in proper messaging, Goldrick-Rab said. This may mean proactively laying out alternative options before changing dining hours, making an emergency aid fund "as minimally invasive and burdensome as possible” and communicating “the need for physical distance as opposed to social distance to emphasize that you are still a community while observing recommended prevention practices,” according to the Hope Center guide.

Madison has a long tradition of organizations helping students access food, said Zepeda, who has studied efforts like Slow Food UW, a student volunteer organization serving locally sourced, affordable meals. Similarly, she said, now is a “time for people to reach out and help each other,” especially as students may be ashamed to seek help from families or choosing to stay on campus to maintain jobs.

While the Student Relief Fund does not directly give money to students, it advocates for them to help locate resources. The team has also put out applications for grants faculty can use to assist students.

But, for individuals who wish to help, simply giving money is the best option, Zepeda said. She added that it is imperative that the university continue paying students who have on-campus jobs, whether they are able to show up or not.

“If you donate food to your local food bank, all they have then is the food and whatever you gave them,” Goldrick-Rab agreed. “If you give them money, they can purchase what they need. The same thing goes for these students.

If you would like to donate to these organizations and students, you can give to the Student Relief Fund here and the Open Seat Food Pantry here. Learn how to donate items to the pantry here.