Three volunteers hold green bags full of produce to distribute to needy families.

Volunteers handle bags of free produce to distribute to Columbus residents. There will be a produce market at the Tuttle Community Recreation Center Friday from 3-5:30 p.m. Credit: Courtesy of JD Mooney

Even in ideal circumstances, college students often go without food. But in the middle of a pandemic, with canceled internships and jobs, bills to pay and a handful of dining locations open on campus, the benefits of fresh, healthy produce are even more likely to be outweighed by their high costs.

Starting Friday, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department plan to combat college food insecurity by offering free boxes of fresh produce at the Tuttle Community Recreation Center. Julie Pruett, project manager for the City of Columbus Recreation and Parks’ Office of Youth and Family Nutrition, said they chose the location because of its proximity to Ohio State’s campus.

“It’s a community that we haven’t served with this program in the past, and I know that food insecurity is a real issue for college students,” Pruett said.

Forty-two percent of students at four-year institutions had low or very low food security, according to a 2016 study conducted by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, Student Government Resource Center and Student Public Interest Research Groups. 

A 2014 campus survey found that 15 percent of Ohio State students — about 7,000 students — had very low food security.

Although the Mid-Ohio Food Collective has set up free markets all over Franklin, Ross, Marion, Morrow, Knox and other central Ohio counties for decades, Pruett said Columbus Recreation and Parks have partnered with them for the past seven or eight years. She said the city typically sets up anywhere from 10 to 15 markets at community centers each year, but this is the first time they set up close to campus.

Upon arriving at the produce market, each person will receive a prepackaged box of fresh seasonal produce, donated by businesses such as Kroger. Pruett said although the contents of boxes vary from week to week, common items include potatoes, berries and onions. She said each package contains a week’s worth of produce so people can supplement the food they already have with healthy options.

“We joke about college kids living on ramen,” Pruett said. “But it’s serious. I mean a lot of kids, college students and older students do have to rely on those cheap foods and it’s not good for them or any of us.”

a box with onions, chives and potatoes to be distributed to a needy family.

What a typical produce box from the Fresh Produce Mobile Market contains. Fruits and vegetables vary depending on the season. Credit: Courtesy of JD Mooney

In order to receive food from the markets, people must earn less than twice the federal poverty level, according to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective website. For a single-person household — what many students living on and off campus are considered — that is $25,520 annually. But Pruett said students should not worry too much about income level.

“We don’t want that to be a barrier. We want people who need the help to come get help,” she said.

Pruett said people receiving food will be asked their name and address.

There are five mobile produce markets scheduled at the Tuttle Community Recreation Center through the end of September, and Pruett said if there’s a consistent demand for the produce, they’ll likely have more.

To ensure physical distancing and to follow other health recommendations amid COVID-19, Pruett said the markets will operate mainly as drive-thru services. Volunteers wearing masks and gloves will load food directly into people’s trunks or vehicles. For those without cars or traveling by foot, Pruett said there will be a space sectioned off for people to receive their food at a safe distance.

The first mobile produce market will be Friday from 3:30-5 p.m at the community center at 240 W. Oakland Ave. Four additional markets will be Aug. 7, Aug. 21, Sept. 4 and Sept. 25 from 3:30-5 p.m.