Households receiving food assistance are able to spend a high percentage of their normal weekly food budget on other important items.

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The “poor starving college student” moniker is often used tongue in cheek, but the reality is approximately half of college students are “food insecure,” meaning they have low or very low food security, and food insecurity is strongly linked to lower graduation rates. To address this problem, Western Washington University’s Associated Students established the WWU Food Pantry to increase the health and success of its students.

“Normally when you think of students with food insecurity, you think of ‘poor’, but I know a lot of people who are food insecure. You can’t tell just by looking at them,” says Julia Rutledge, vice president of activities for Western Washington University’s Associated Students. “Many students pay all their bills, get to the end of the month and haven’t had their pay day yet, and are then faced with eating Top Ramen and bread.”

The WWU Food Pantry, established by the AS and funded by a grant written by Rutledge, works to help bridge this gap. Beyond making sure students aren’t too hungry to study, research at the university suggests food banks contribute to the health and success of the economy and community at large.

Using Skagit County’s Helping Hands Food Bank and Neighbors in Need Food Bank as test subjects, Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research recently completed a study charting the economic importance of food banks on the communities they serve, from the direct-spending impacts of the food distribution, to the ripple factors on local employment and sales, to the food bank’s impact on vital community statistics around crime and health.

Helping Hands and Neighbors in Need are the two largest food banks in Skagit County; together, during the study period (2016 data), the two organizations distributed more than 3 million pounds of food a year to more than 1,200 families. Using an economic modeling system called IMPLAN, CEBR researchers determined that by transferring this amount of food to households in need, those households were then free to spend a high percentage of their normal weekly food budget on other important items: housing, transportation, apparel or other goods and services.

For example, analyzing the data from Helping Hands shows each of the 730 families it serves can then spend about $2,756 per year on other necessities, with the estimate of direct local spending on these other necessities in a range from $1.3 million (low estimate) to $3 million (high estimate). The impact of these sales then has a ripple effect on job creation and economic vitality in that community as well.

“The ripple effect, or multiplier, is important in a community because it measures the actual expenditure of the person (direct), the spending by those they buy from (indirect) and the activities of those business’ employees (induced).  It provides a clearer impact of how the spending impacts the economy,” says James McCafferty, CEBR director.

A student team within CEBR consisting of Claire Anderson (Renton), Cory Briar (Helena, Montana), Justine Dombrowski (Los Alamos, New Mexico), and Heleana Lally (Spokane) also completed an analysis of the food banks’ impact on crime statistics in their communities.

The data from this research shows a clear pattern of food bank operation dropping existing crime figures in those areas, generating substantial cost savings for law enforcement, courts, and incarceration facilities as well as potential positive impacts on social services.

“Looking at impacts on crime, health care or other high-cost government service areas is an important step in understanding the role of food banks and making the case for why communities should consider their financial support as an overall investment that has a positive return,” says McCafferty.

Western Washington University offers a variety of degree options at various locations throughout the state, in addition to opportunities to impact communities. To learn more about how to support Western Washington University and access to higher education, visit foundation.wwu.edu.