Stephanie Shaw believes that if her life circumstances were a little different, she might be a frequent visitor to Missouri Southern State University's new food pantry.

"I'm married now, but I don't work — I'm going to school and I have an internship," said Shaw, a social work major from Carl Junction. "I know if I didn't have my husband's income, I would need this."

Students, faculty, staff and administrators on Tuesday cut the ribbon on the university's new Lion Co-Op, a pantry that will offer food and personal items to members of the campus community in a safe and discreet environment. Officials hope the pantry will particularly be of help to students who struggle with food insecurity.

"It's kind of hard to think about food insecurity in the 21st century, but it's real," MSSU President Alan Marble said. "And it's really hard to think about food insecurity on a college campus, but it's real, too."

The project was launched in August by three faculty members: Andrea Cullers from the kinesiology department, Renee White from the social work department and Megan Bever from the history department. They had anecdotal evidence of students in their classrooms going hungry and were working off of two studies conducted on the campus last spring.

One study that found that more than 250 students had remained on campus during the winter break, when limited meals are served in Mayes Dining Hall, and many students reported limited transportation and money to access food. The other study found that 25 percent of participants 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 30.6 percent reported that they couldn't afford to eat balanced meals.

Cullers on Tuesday was still in shock at how quickly the Lion Co-Op project had progressed from noticing a classroom need to opening a food pantry.

"To say that it snowballed is the least I can say," she said. "This is only the beginning. We are serving all members of the Lion community."

James Sapp, a senior social work major from Columbia, will help staff the pantry and has already served his first customer, even though the pantry doesn't formally open until Thursday. It was last week, and Sapp was doing some last-minute work in the Lion Co-Op when a man wandered by. Sapp wasn't even sure the man was a student at MSSU, but he expressed a need for some food assistance.

"We got him a week's worth of food and gave him some resources of where he can go in the future," Sapp said.

Sapp is also currently an intern at Crosslines Ministries in Joplin, where he has seen firsthand the families who need help with food. Most of the clients there work, but they can often fall through the cracks in getting assistance, he said. At the college level, Sapp believes a large percentage of his classmates and peers — maybe up to half, according to some research — struggle with food insecurity.

"(The food pantry at Missouri Southern) is so needed that I'm shocked it took this long," he said. "I'm glad to be a part of it, for sure."

Shaw, the other social work student who helps staff the pantry, thinks international students or students without families who live locally could struggle the most with food insecurity. Yet she knows that even a small change in someone's job or living situation could force them to seek help at the Lion Co-Op.

"I think everybody could have a time in their life where they would need this," she said.

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