The Maize and Blue Cupboard Sees Increased Demand

The inside of a store.
Photo by Kelly O'Mara.

University of Michigan students have it good in a lot of ways – with the restaurant and clubbing culture of downtown, the Big House, the art galleries and the vibrant student life – but they are not immune to the world. The stubbornly persistent expense attaching itself like glue to the cost of living and the relative lack of grocery stores around campus, has led to increased traffic at the Maize and Blue Cupboard, U of M’s food bank.

“This past September we had 800 shoppers in one week, which was up about 200 over the previous September,” Maiz and Blue Cupboard Program Manager Kelly O’Mara said. “We are seeing a lot more non-traditional students, a lot more parenting students visiting us, and a lot more staff.

You’ll need to make an appointment before visiting. The Maize and Blue pantry is a low-ceiling space in the basement of the Betsy Barbour Residence Hall. Walking in next to the loading dock on Maynard Street, you’ll find a well-organized, clean and functional space; available to, as O’Mara put it, “anyone with a M Card.”

The inside of a store.
Photo by Mandy Curnow, U of M Student Life Communications.

Those numbers have fluctuated wildly since 2019, according to statistics provided by the university – affected by Ann Arbor’s high cost of living, the pandemic and inflation. The vaccines, and multiple rounds of students being sent home effected numbers, which went on a downward trajectory after that. This was well into the current administration, and after the role out of Covid vaccines. Inflation also came back with a vengeance. This has caused numbers to fluctuate wildly, all well above the 1,000 mark norm from pre-2019. They peaked again in January 2023, and reached an all time high in recent years with 3,021 visits in March 2023.

There have been 106,137 total visits as of the end of April this year. At the end of last year, this number was at 97,093 visits.

“Right now, and in the past few years, it has been a little over 50 percent are graduate students, with the remaining about equally split between undergraduates and staff,” O’Mara said. Her numbers are based on a voluntary survey, which doesn’t cover every guest. “It’s mostly grad students. And of those students, a high percentage were international students. International grad students tend to be the bas of our shoppers.”

Alumni can use the pantry if they are still in the area and still have an M card. But really, the panty is intended for active university members.

“Community support systems like the Maize and Blue Cupboard play a crucial role in our community members’ health and well-being. By providing a diverse selection of essential items, including food staples and personal care products, the cupboard increases access to food so students can focus on their academic and personal development,” Director of Michigan Dining Steve Giardini said in a statement. “The cupboard is a vital resource for students, faculty, and staff in need. By offering year-round appointments for shoppers and emergency food bags, the cupboard is creating a more equitable campus environment where every community member can access nutritious food.”

Current Magazine made the decision to not reach out to U of M students for this piece, partially because there are so many, and partially out of a respect for privacy.

A cooler with refrigerated products.
Photo by Mandy Curnow, U of M Student Life Communications.

But when asked about the impact of the pantry on students’ lives, O’Mara said, “One thing that sort of smacked me in the face last year as we were trying to get people to tell us how the cupboard fits in their lives [is] it’s really hard to make meaning out of the lived experience until you’re out of it. It’s hard to say what it means when they’re just in survival mode. We hear a lot that the resources provided here helped them save money, time, make sure that they have what they needed to get through their years here. I think that that’s really tough because people forget that food insecurity exists inside a household budget. It’s not a food budget, it’s a household budget. And when rent in Ann Arbor is $1,000 or more, it’ll leave very little for food shopping.”

Another generational complaint about the Diag is its distance from any grocery store. While yes, there are hundreds of restaurants and the Target that moved into the State Theater building, O’Mara said that that is still not equal to the community’s needs, especially if students don’t have a car.

“So we encourage students to shop here even if they aren’t food insecure, but they don’t have the time or means to take a bus,” O’Mara said. “I think we forget that students are really busy and often food insecure students are working a job or two, while also attending school, and they don’t have that one or two hours” to make a bus trip “and then prepare a meal” which is why they emphasize ready meals at the pantry.

Food is sourced from around the area, primarily from Food Gatherers, who have worked for various versions of them for a decade now, providing 1,716,000 pounds of food. The premier anti-hunger non-profit donated 445,000 pounds of food last year and 165,500 pounds in the first four months of this year according to Markell Lewis Miller, the Director of Community and Food Programs at Food Gatherers.

“We are proud to work with the UM Maize & Blue Cupboard as they work to address food insecurity on campus. Over the last ten years, what started as a pilot project has now become a sustained program that has grown to respond to a significant need in their community,” Miller said.

Students can also get food for their members of your household while shopping. Students who are parents are unlikely to find baby formula, but it is occasionally donated.

Dietary restrictions in general can be a challenge. O’Mara said that they have a “food bank within a food bank” for products like soy milk. While not always available, the pantry does try to prioritize having products available for people who and certain products for dietary needs rather than taste preferences.

You can reach out to the pantry through their website if you are a student or faculty member in need of help. If you don’t need help, but would like to contribute, you can do so by donating food by dropping it off during business hours.

“We really encourage people donating things that they like to eat and donating those things,” O’Mara said. “For us, the things that are more impactful are things that we cannot get from our food partner like baby food, spices, personal care items, things for special diets, things that for culturally inclusive diets.”

Financial contributions are also welcome. They can be done through the Maize & Blue pantry website or the U Of M Giving page.

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Drew Saunders is a freelance business and environmental journalist who grew up just outside of Ann Arbor. He covers local business developments, embraces his foodie side with reviews restaurants, obsesses over Michigan's environmental state, loves movies, and feels spoiled by the music he gets to review for Ann Arbor!