When Heather Howard cut ties with her parents last year, the University of South Florida senior suddenly found herself wondering where she would find her next meal.
“I had like a survival mindset. I felt like I had just been abandoned in the woods, and I had to just make do with what I had,” she said. “I was looking up plants I could forage. I was desperate.”
After watching his mother spend years paying off her student loans, Samuel Camilo, a senior finance major, was reluctant to take on any debt to complete his degree. Instead, he supported himself, sometimes taking time off school to work part-time jobs. But as funds ran low, Camilo found himself skipping meals.
"Sometimes during the days you'll notice it like, 'Oh, I'm like hungry,’ but I got to keep pushing because I don't have anywhere to cook food, and I don't have the resources to buy outside food because it's way more expensive," said Camilo.
Howard and Camilo are like thousands of college students across the country struggling with hunger.
A survey of 86,000 students conducted by the Hope Center For College, Community, and Justice found over 50 percent were like Howard – and had experienced food insecurity within the previous year.
Such students often experience difficulty focusing and as a result, struggle in class.
Colleges and universities are opening food pantries to give students access to healthy meals - including USF's Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses, with the Feed-A-Bull Pantry and Support-A-Bull Market respectively.
But many times, students fear the stigma attached to accepting help.
USF leaders such as Dwayne Isaacs, the director of student life at USF St. Petersburg, hope that by speaking openly about food insecurity, students can get the help they need to succeed in the classroom.
"We don't want people to think that it's something to be ashamed of or something that they shouldn't talk about or seek help for, and it again goes back to, it could happen to anyone."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a condition in which someone does not have the resources to feed themselves, either nutritiously, or at all.
Those dealing with food insecurity may lack variety in their diet, rely on foods that fail to provide adequate nutrition, or simply be forced to skip meals.
University officials at both the USF Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses hope that the pantries will ensure students are getting the nutrition they need.
Modeled after other local food pantry initiatives, the university pantries are set up like a grocery store, allowing students to select items from various food groups.
Katie Webster, a dietitian at the school's wellness center and founder of the Tampa campus' food pantry, says that the pantry has served over 200 students this semester alone.
"The fact that we're able to provide some supplemental food to make sure that they're getting some nutritious meals throughout the week and then being able to think and sit in class and concentrate, I mean that's success right there," said Webster. "And definitely, I think it's important that we continue to have this resource available for our students."
The food pantries on both campuses are confidential. University officials say they track the number of times that a student uses the pantry, but that the information is used to connect students who may be dealing with larger issues with other resources on campus.
“What we try to do is follow up with students,” said Isaacs. “So it really is about more than just serving food or toiletries, it's about [asking] what else might you be struggling with that we can point you to help and the right resources."
Before Howard found the food pantry, she would walk around campus looking for free food.
Sometimes, she would snag pizza after club meetings, cookies from the school cafeteria and fruit from the wellness center.
“I was basically just a person who walked around looking for free stuff,” said Howard. “But now I have the food pantry so I can focus more on my day-to-day things than finding food. I no longer feel like a squirrel scavenging.”
For Camilo, the pantry played a huge part in keeping him in school.
“When you're struggling and like, you're living off your savings, and your savings are dwindling and you see you have no money and the thoughts that go through your mind are like, 'Do I even have enough funds to stay in college?' Food is a big deal.”
Camilo and Howard both say that the access to the food pantry has made surviving college just a little bit easier.
For Camillo, access to the food pantry means that he can focus on completing his degree.
"I'm not ashamed, because I know that for me, this is just a hurdle, this is just a step for me, and it's just building me up to be a better person," he said.
And Howard says the resources USF provides have been about more than just food.
"It turned out people are like just really understanding and I didn't expect them to be so understanding. They've kind of become like my support system," said Howard. "It kind of feels like they're my new family."
Both Camilo and Howard are on track to graduate next spring.
People interested in donating to the USF Tampa Feed-A-Bull Pantry or the USF St. Petersburg Support-A-Bull Market can click on the links. Monetary donations to Feed-A-Bull can be made here. Contributions to the Sustain-A-Bull fundraiser can be made here.