EAST PEORIA — Terri Ingles has seen students take books out of backpacks to make room for food from Illinois Central College’s food pantry.

“That’s pretty humbling,” said Ingles, coordinator of ICC’s access services and one of the student and staff volunteers who operate the pantry.

Increasingly, colleges across the country are recognizing many students have to make tough choices between buying books, school supplies, housing and food. Far too many opt to go without food, according to the authors of “Hungry and Homeless in College,” a 2017 survey of students at 70 community colleges in 24 states.

ICC’s Intercultural Diversity Committee recognized the need in 2011, when the group started a small, word-of-mouth pantry tucked in a virtually hidden corner of the East Peoria campus. Last year, the pantry came out of the shadows, moving to a more visible location near the main entrance and partnering with Midwest Food Bank for a steady supply to add to the food and hygiene products collected during on-campus food drives.

“I definitely appreciate it because sometimes it gets hard,” said Isreal “Izzy” Evans, who stocked up with toiletries and food Monday before heading to basketball practice. “You can get down to your last little bit of food and then you remember, ‘Oh, yeah, ICC has a food pantry.’ “

Lack of transportation to a grocery store is is also an issue for students who live on campus, Evans added

The pantry’s official hours are 2 to 4 p.m. Mondays. But staff from the testing services office will open it throughout the week if a student asks.

The pantry was used 175 times last semester, said Tracy Morris, vice president of student services, cautioning that the figure could include multiple uses by one person. “We’re not equipped to be a full-service food bank,” Morris added, “but we know there are students who need supplemental assistance.”

ICC is not alone or unusual in offering a food pantry for students. Methodist College of Nursing recently started a food pantry. The College and University Food Bank Alliance has grown from 15 members when it started in 2012 to almost 600 this year. The membership list includes many two-year and four-year schools in Illinois, though not ICC.

The national group has grown along with a wide range of efforts to meet students unmet needs, including expanding the National School Lunch Program to higher education.

Traditional students who once might have been eligible for federally-subsidized free or reduced-price lunch programs in K-12 schools are on their own after high school graduation. “You don’t get a free lunch in college,” Ingles said.

The hunger issue in higher education extends to non-traditional college students, many of whom are working while they go to school. Baby food is a popular item at ICC’s food pantry, according to Ingles.

Though some studies have found substantial numbers of students at four-year universities worry about where their next meal is coming from, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s annual “Hungry and Homeless in College” survey focuses on community college students.

The HOPE lab, based at the University of Wisconsion-Madison, studies college costs from all angles. The 2017 survey found two out three community college students reported some level of “food insecurity,” defined as the “limited or uncertain availability” of safe foods “or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.” (About 14 percent were homeless.)

Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rob and other authors of the study link the growing issue of hunger and homelessness on college campuses to a dramatic rise in college costs coupled with declining federal resources.

The federal Pell Grant, Goldrick-Rob wrote of the financial aid program, covered roughly 80 percent of college costs when it was created in the 1970s, including tuition, fees and living costs. Pell Grants currently cover about 30 percent of total college costs, according to Goldrick-Rob.

The authors of the HOPE Lab survey acknowledge theirs is not the most representational sample, but it is the largest so far.

Students who take advantage of ICC’s pantry range from Haliah Offutt, a budget-conscious graphic communications major with a 4.0 grade point average who gets snacks for the long days on campus, to a working student whose mother died, leaving her to care for two younger siblings.

Usage is not based on income guidelines, but it is based on need.

“We hear the stories,” Morris said. “If we can make it just a little bit easier, that might change a person’s life.”

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.