SOUTH PORTLAND — Jessie Santangelo peers into the freezer and emerges with some French bread. A minute later, she grabs a can of soup and some pasta, and adds it to her cardboard box.

It’s her first time at the Captain’s Cupboard, the new student food pantry at Southern Maine Community College.

It opened in November in recognition of what poverty experts say is a growing issue for college and university students: food insecurity. Food pantries also operate at University of Maine in Orono and at Kaplan University in Lewiston.

“It’s been really hard. Money is really tight,” says Santangelo, 20, a second-year culinary arts student. She’s a little embarrassed to be here, she says, but between school expenses and rent, and the small income she earns working part time doing banquet prep at a hotel, she finds herself here. And grateful for it.

“It’s nice to have it. I’m hoping work will kick in pretty soon,” she said.

Southern Maine Community College officials partnered with the college’s honors society, Phi Theta Kappa, to create the food pantry after a 2012 campuswide survey found that about 9 percent of the school’s roughly 8,000 students go without eating because of financial circumstances (about 700 students) and almost 1 percent, or about 65 students, are homeless.

“What we learned was that there was a real need,” said Leanna Shields, the president of the honor society and director of the food pantry. “People were asking themselves, ‘Do I buy a book, or do I buy food?’ ”

More college students are having to ask that question, experts say.

There are about 125 campuses nationwide with food pantries, and more where they are being considered, according to Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the nation’s oldest campus food bank, which opened in 1993 at Michigan State University. He frequently gets calls, usually from student clubs, looking for advice about how to set up a food pantry.

“All the time, other campuses are looking to set up food pantries. They’ve really grown,” said Smith-Tyge, who is also active in the College and University Food Bank Alliance, a nationwide group created last year to be a resource for interested schools.

The need is growing as students struggle to pay rising tuition costs amid a still-bleak job market. Housing, transportation and food costs are rising. More “nontraditional” students are going back to college and supporting families. Even traditional students who go to college right out of high school have less support from home because of the economy, Smith-Tyge said.

“All that creates the environment that leads to food insecurity on campus,” Smith-Tyge said.

The Captain’s Cupboard, housed in the newly renovated Captain’s House on the SMCC campus in South Portland, is also a test site for Good Shepherd Food-Bank’s new College and University Food Pantry Program. Kaplan University also partners with Good Shepherd for supplies, according to Shannon Coffin, who oversees child hunger initiatives for Good Shepherd Food-Bank.

“Both schools reached out to us. … It is something that has been happening across the country,” Coffin said.

Coffin said many of the students in need are those returning to school, or young families trying to make ends meet while getting an education to improve their job prospects.

“It’s a way to meet them where they are and help them have a successful academic career,” she said. “If you have a family and you are trying to go to school, and you are sacrificing whatever income you were able to make, and you have to work at least part time and you are dealing with children and school – it just becomes overwhelming.”

In Orono, University of Maine students can get food or used clothing at the Black Bear Exchange, a food pantry that opened in 2009. It serves about 30 people a week, and is self-sustaining through year-round food drives by various campus groups and revenue from the annual “Clean Sweep” spring resale of student goods, according to Lisa Morin, the coordinator of the UMaine Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism.

“We definitely have had an increase in the number of people who are coming in to see us,” said Morin, adding that it’s not just students using the food pantry. Some clients are faculty and staff members too embarrassed to go to a traditional food pantry, she said.

At the Captain’s Cupboard, students must present a current student ID and can take a certain amount of food, depending on how many people are in their household.

About 50 students used the food pantry in December, and more than 50 students have used it this month. So far, Shields said, the clients have been split about evenly between individual students and families.

“There really is an immediate need,” Shields said. “People are becoming more aware. We’re really trying to break that stigma and negative connotation associated with a food pantry.”

Shields knows what that can feel like. As a child, she and her family had to use a food pantry.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s near and dear to my heart. I understand that need,” said Shields, 32, who will graduate this spring and plans to pursue a master’s degree in taxation.

Samantha Colver, who helped set up the Kaplan and SMCC food pantries for Good Shepherd Food-Bank, said she was very moved when she trained the SMCC students on how to stock and run the food pantry.

“We had just gone on our first shopping trip to the warehouse and we started stocking the shelves and one of the women just started crying,” said Colver, who specializes in child hunger projects. “She had kids herself and she’d used food pantries in the past. She said, ‘This is going to be so important.’

“We see a lot of people who have to make a choice about whether they choose food over education. Our target populations are young families who are trying to go back to school, and they only have the option of either working or going to school and not feeding their kids,” Colver said. “We see this as an indirect way to feed kids.”

Demand is high enough that Colver is creating a school food pantry resource kit that Good Shepherd can share with other schools that want to set up food pantries, Coffin said.

“We’re growing the program,” she said.

The honor society provided the initial $500 seed funding, received $1,000 from the student Senate, and had that total amount matched by a Maine credit union group, giving the food pantry $3,000 to operate. Since the pantry gets food for free or at a steep discount from Good Shepherd Food-Bank, the money will likely last through this summer, Shields said.

Santangelo said she hopes to donate to the food pantry herself when she’s able.

“It’s a struggle now,” she said. “But you get by.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com