ATLANTIC CITY — For Stockton University freshman Cailey Jablonski, the stress of college doesn’t just stem from essays and exams.
The 19-year-old spent her summer in Columbus, Burlington County, paying $275 a week to live in a cramped motel after a bad family situation left her homeless.
She moved into Stockton’s Atlantic City campus in September, but like thousands of students across the country, Jablonski still couldn’t afford one basic necessity: groceries.
“A lot of people don’t realize when you’re struggling how valuable food becomes,” Jablonski said.
A month later, she signed up for Stockton’s food assistance program.
Tucked away in a small corner on the ground floor of the residential building is a makeshift food pantry. About a half-dozen tall, gray cabinets filled with rice, milk cartons and toiletries are lined up side by side.
Every day before class, Jablonski heads to the newly opened food pantry and picks up boxes of mac-and-cheese and cereal.
Nearly 150 students across the Galloway Township and Atlantic City campuses have applied for the program, which also gives access to food vouchers that can be used at any dining hall.
All together, the program has a $30,000 budget.
The idea for the pantry was born over a year ago, when Assistant Dean of Students Haley Baum was looking over architectural plans for the Atlantic City campus. She spotted a tiny enclave in the blueprints and envisioned it filled with shelves stocked with non-perishables.
“College campuses are an example of the world around us,” said Baum. “We have all different types of people from different backgrounds and with varying needs here. ... Food is just one of them.”
And the need is growing, Baum said. About 36 percent of students at four-year institutions reported having “low” or “very low” food security, according to a 2018 survey from researchers at HOPE Lab.
The Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, in Egg Harbor Township donates pantry supplies to Stockton on a bi-weekly basis. Faculty and staff pitch in, too.
To supplement, Baum goes shopping at wholesalers equipped with a handful of coupons. She uses part of the program’s budget and some of her own money to purchase favorites among college students, such as Ramen noodles and pasta.
“We have more and more students signing up for the program, so we have less and less (supplies),” Baum said.
Stockton’s food pantry was inspired by others sprouting up at South Jersey colleges over the past two years, including Rowan University and Rutgers University-Camden.
At Rowan, the move came after a campus-wide survey in 2017 found at least 15 percent of undergraduates there faced food insecurity, or a lack of access to affordable, healthy food.
“Not everybody has what they need,” Baum said. “We wanted to make sure we’re reaching all our students.”