This story is part of a Scroll series highlighting hunger in Eastern Idaho.
A smiling employee greets visitors every Wednesday and Friday at noon as they make their way down an old wooden staircase into the warm basement of the Family Crisis Center.
At the foot of the stairs, two or three dozen people make the room feel tight, speaking softly to nearby strangers as they wait. Some stand against the outer walls, while others sit on a couple of bright red benches in the room’s center.
It’s unclear whether the eagerness of the crowd is a result of the temporary escape from a frigid Idaho winter or the pleasant excitement of light socializing.
Or maybe they’re eager to receive much-needed food.
In 2018, Madison County residents and BYU-Idaho students received a combined 320,000 pounds of food from the Family Crisis Center’s food bank.
Despite this, Feeding America’s most recent study revealed Madison County had the worst food security rate in Idaho. According to the study, 19.8 percent of the county’s population is food insecure, meaning they do not have reliable access to a sufficient amount of nutritious food on their own.
Some will argue Rexburg’s college students make up much of Madison County’s population and likely contribute to the high rate of food insecurity — and there is evidence this could be true.
Kristy Bradshaw, the physical needs coordinator at the Family Crisis Center, said she has overseen Madison County’s area food bank for more than five years and estimates about half of recent participants are BYU-Idaho students.
Analyzing other college towns in Idaho reinforces this narrative.
Idaho State University’s home county of Bannock experienced a food insecurity rate of 14.5 percent, while Latah County, home of the University of Idaho, saw food insecurity rates hit 17.5 percent. Both are above Idaho’s average rate of 13.2 percent.
These numbers indicate college students in Idaho may be at higher risk for food insecurity and not all of them likely know what they can do about it.
“I think there are quite a few students on campus that don’t know about these resources,” said Marie Harris, the service coordinator for the Family Crisis Center.
Harris said BYU-Idaho reaches out to them regularly with students who have eaten nothing but soup for three days or ramen noodles for a whole week.
“It might be a pride issue, or maybe they have never accessed food assistance before,” Harris said. “It’s easy to say ‘I can deal with it’ or ‘I can make it work,’ but if you’re eating ramen every meal, that’s not very healthy, and you are food insecure.”
Harris said international students are especially susceptible to food insecurity because they often can’t access the same government aid other students can.
Unlike many government-run food pantries, the Family Crisis Center’s food bank is able to serve international students and others more easily because they do not require an income-based assessment or any other documentation in order to serve them. Participants only need to bring proof that they currently reside within Madison County.
“Those students who are eating ramen every week, we want them to come in and get fresh produce, meat, protein and dairy,” Harris said. “We are there to help in that situation.”
But college students are not the only ones in need of food assistance. Bradshaw said her biggest concern is for those in the ALICE group — those considered above the poverty line, but still unable to put food on the table. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed.
“That’s the group that aren’t accessing food stamps, don’t have Medicaid, and they’re out working two or sometimes six part-time jobs because there’s not access to insurance,” Bradshaw said. “That’s the biggest group that needs this help. When finances are tough, a lot of the time it’s the food that goes first.”
Aside from the food bank at the Family Crisis Center, a number of other programs exist in Madison County and throughout Southeast Idaho to reduce hunger. These include SNAP,
Meals on Wheels and the Idaho Foodbank’s backpack program for children.
Bradshaw said even with the many avenues people have in this area for receiving help, she worries there are still some — like those in the ALICE group — who are going without needed assistance.
“We serve a lot of people,” Bradshaw said. “But with as many people as we have in the community and with the percentage of them that are under the poverty line, we should have more.”