Summer 2017

What's in your backpack?

Rebecca Leighton and fellow students are cultivating lettuce, onions, and other produce to help U of M students who struggle with hunger.
Photography by Liz Banfield

“Seed packets,” says Rebecca Leighton, ’15 B.S., who will finish her master’s degree in public health nutrition this fall. Leighton is working with fellow students to plant the seeds in a garden plot on the St. Paul campus. She expects their efforts will yield 1,300 pounds of fresh vegetables for Nutritious U, the student food pantry she established this year.

Leighton got the idea for the pantry when she discovered that, according to a Boynton Health Service survey, 10 percent of U of M students experience food shortages and almost 18 percent worry about running out of food. She interviewed students who talked about skipping meals or using strategies such as staying as motionless as possible during the day to fight hunger. “Students are being resourceful and making ends meet, but some of these strategies were pretty alarming,” she says.

The Robert Henton Scholarship recipient applied for and received a grant from the Minnesota Student Association to purchase healthy food for two distribution pilots. Leighton was expecting to serve about 400 students over three days during the first one in February and was shocked when 491 showed up on the first day alone. The pantry ran out of food and had to close early. The second pilot, in March—which was funded by the grant, various donors, a local church, and Boynton—resulted in 927 students collectively receiving 6,000 pounds of food.

Nutritious U will have a permanent home in Coffman Union this fall.

“I used to think hunger was just a problem overseas, but I’ve realized that we have hunger here in our city and on our campus,” Leighton says. “Everyone deserves healthy food, not just people who were born into privilege.”