- Associated Press - Saturday, November 28, 2020

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Thousands of UW-Madison students were travelling home this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families.

But some students are staying put in Madison. For those who come from overseas, COVID-19 travel restrictions make returning home difficult. Others fear the risk of traveling home may put their families’ health in jeopardy. And some students cannot afford the cost of returning home or have an unstable home life and wish to remain in Madison.

Sensing an increased number of students sticking around campus for the holiday and noticing an increased demand at the university food pantry, student organizers coordinated the pantry’s first holiday food drive. About 100 students placed orders for Thanksgiving groceries, which they pick up this week.

Open Seat, UW-Madison’s student-run food pantry, estimates those hundred orders will feed 270 people. That’s in addition to the 246 students that visited the pantry earlier this semester, according to Julia Gutman, a senior studying social welfare who also serves as the pantry’s distribution director.

Since the pandemic arrived last spring, Open Seat has seen an uptick in student visits. In the spring 2018 semester, the pantry recorded 137 visits. The following spring, it tallied 99. In the spring 2020 semester, the pantry reported 288 visits, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Madison Area Technical College is also seeing more students stop by its food pantry.

A national report indicates the problem of food insecurity - having limited or uncertain access to food - is becoming more serious and widespread on college campuses because of the pandemic and its economic effect on students, some of whom lost their jobs.

A survey released over the summer by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found 38% of students at four-year universities and 44% at two-year universities were food-insecure in the previous 30 days. Those statistics are up from 33% and 42%, respectively, in the fall of 2019.

More than 38,000 students from 54 schools completed the survey in the spring. Neither UW-Madison nor MATC, also known as Madison College, participated, though Milwaukee Area Technical College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College did.

Open Seat organizers came up with the idea to host a Thanksgiving food drive for students after reading reports about how the annual Goodman Community Center was seeing a record-breaking surge in demand from families requesting Thanksgiving baskets this year.

Student staff asked pantry-goers if they needed a meal over the holiday to supplement what they received in a normal week.

“There was definitely a need,” Gutman said of their informal queries.

In another new UW-Madison initiative, the Wisconsin Union teamed up with the Dean of Student’s Office to provide individual-sized Thanksgiving meals for any student in need. The idea came from staff who wanted to show their support for students during this challenging year. Thirty-eight students requested meals, university spokesperson Darcy Wittberger said.

Madison College student health educator Denise Holin recorded more than 300 visits to the food pantry this fall - up from about 250 at this point last school year and during a semester when far fewer students are on campus because 70% of classes are fully online.

“I would say the need for the food pantries has definitely increased,” Holin said. “Even as the college prepares for a shutdown with limited access after Thanksgiving, the need remains to help students fight food insecurity.”

Though nearly all classes will move online after the Thanksgiving break, the food pantry will remain open until Dec. 17 and re-open in January when the spring semester starts, she said.

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