MSU Denver is reinventing its food pantry amid growing demand
Newly named Rowdy’s Corner expands to fight food insecurity and the stigma attached to asking for help.
With significantly more space and a new name, the campus food pantry at Metropolitan State University of Denver is reinventing itself to meet growing demand for its services.
The University is also hoping a new location and reimagined approach to helping hungry students will eliminate the stigma attached to asking for help.
Formerly called the Roadrunner Food Pantry, Rowdy’s Corner offers students more than free groceries, said Miguel Huerta, assistant director of Community Engagement and Programs at MSU Denver. Expanded offerings include access to wellness products and school supplies, microwaves and toaster ovens for heating food, a community dining space, a charging station and public-benefits support.
“It will be more than a food pantry,” Huerta said of the new location, which is named after MSU Denver’s school mascot. “It will be a place to nourish community and creativity in a cozy and comfortable space.”
Rowdy’s Corner moved from a 100-square-foot office to a 1,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by a convenience store in the Tivoli Student Union. It’s a big upgrade that couldn’t come at a more crucial time, as students face inflation and the high cost of groceries.
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Student visits to the food pantry nearly doubled over the first seven weeks of the fall semester, Huerta said.
According to the National #RealCollege Survey Report, published last March by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, 35% of MSU Denver students had experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days. That translates to a minimum of 5,000 students needing a reliable, free source of food.
“There has been a lot of growth and unprecedented engagement,” Huerta said. “We simply cannot meet demand in (the smaller) space.”
Rachel Briseno, a student employee at Rowdy’s Corner, has witnessed that demand and understands the food pantry’s mission all too well. Having experienced food insecurity as a child and adult, Briseno can relate to students who have conflicting feelings about visiting the food pantry and the stigma attached to asking for help.
“For a long time, I resisted seeking support,” said Briseno, an English major who is minoring in Social Work. “I didn’t want to take from someone who needed it more. I thought these services were for ‘other people.’ But then, I realized I am one of those people.”
Established in 2008, the then-Metro State Food Bank distributed food out of a 24-square-foot closet before being renamed the Roadrunner Food Pantry in 2018 and moving to a bigger room on the second floor of the Tivoli Student Union. The new location just down the hall opened to students on Nov. 30.
“I want to ensure (that) people know that all MSU Denver students qualify to come in and get food,” said Huerta. “We have plenty. You’re not taking from someone else.”
In response to the increased demand, Huerta and his team began visiting classrooms with snack carts last year, reaching nearly 1,000 students.
The food pantry then partnered with MSU Denver’s Department of Nutrition and graduate students including Natassa Christides to collect student feedback, which led to a host of improvements in what the food pantry offered students. They included a wider selection of food to meet a variety of dietary needs, shelves stocked with produce from local farms, healthy to-go meals and bi-monthly visits from a free mobile market sponsored by SECORCares and Ent Credit Union.
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The push for expanded services culminated with the move to Rowdy’s Corner.
“Having food-pantry employees involved in the development of the space and buy-in from the student community have been critical to implementing these changes,” said Christides, a Master of Social Work student and former intern with MSU Denver’s Student Care Center. “It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come in the last year.”
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Journalism major Rosa Serrano-Bann is excited about the transformation. “I’ve felt a lot of judgment from classmates for wanting to use the food pantry — they’d say only people who are really broke should use it,” she said. “This update will benefit so many students by reducing the stigma.”
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While the food pantry has historically depended on the generosity of donors and grants to maintain its inventory, Huerta is optimistically entertaining opportunities to become self-sustaining and serve even more students.
“We want to eliminate the stigma of accessing free food services and become the model for addressing food insecurity in higher education,” he said. “It’s an exciting and compelling time.”