A new effort at Missouri Southern State University aims to help students perform better in the classroom by making sure they have one of their most basic needs met.

The Lion Co-Op, a food pantry for the campus community, will open next month to help students who are dealing with food insecurity, and the benefits could include higher academic achievement by students, and improved retention and graduation rates for the university.

"The question of being hungry leads to a student being able to be successful in the classroom," said Andrea Cullers, an associate professor in the kinesiology department and a registered dietitian. "It is a bigger conversation than just food insecurity."

By the numbers

The project was launched in August by Cullers and two colleagues, Renee White from the social work department and Megan Bever from the history department. The three faculty members had anecdotal evidence of students in their classrooms going hungry as well as a project from social work students last spring that found:

• More than 250 students had remained on campus during the winter break, when limited meals are served in Mayes Dining Hall.

• Many students reported limited transportation and money to access food.

"We have a lot of international students, student-athletes and people who can't get home for the holidays," Cullers said. "We also live in a food desert here; if you do not have a car, there is not a grocery store within walking distance (of the campus). That can be challenging if you aren't from here."

A different study on food security was conducted by students in the MSSU lifetime wellness program last spring. According to results of that study:

• 25 percent of participants reported that in the past 12 months, they worried whether their food would run out before they got money to buy more.

• 21.6 percent reported that the food they purchased didn't last, and they didn't have money to buy more.

• 30.6 percent reported that they couldn't afford to eat balanced meals.

The effect of food insecurity on pupils in the K-12 education system has been well-documented through research: Students who are hungry don't perform as well academically as their peers from food-secure households. There is less research on college-aged students, but Cullers believes the results would be similar.

"(Hunger) has the same effect in any age group — if you're hungry, your performance declines," she said. "If you're in a family and you're having to provide food for your children and not for yourself, not only are you missing out on nutrition, but also the stress of that is extremely high. All of those things snowball into high levels of stress and the inability to focus and perform well in the classroom."

A pantry and more

The three faculty members developed the idea of a food pantry with input from several on-campus departments and got the go-ahead from the administration in September.

The Lion Co-Op will be located in the Federal Emergency Management Agency storm shelter near the residence halls and is projected to open the week before Thanksgiving.

It will be accessible to all MSSU students, faculty and staff, and will offer both food and personal hygiene items, Cullers said. It's expected to be open five hours per week for the rest of the semester and up to 10 hours per week next semester, she said.

Food drives are underway across the campus in order to stock the pantry, she said.

Cullers said another goal of the food pantry is to tie it to Missouri Southern's institutional effectiveness measures to assess whether or how much it contributes to student success and graduation.

In addition, the Lion Co-Op will likely be a learning environment for students, Cullers said. One of her honors students plans to study the pantry and write her thesis on the subject next semester, while social work students expect to help with staffing, she said.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.