MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Just a short walk from a bustling fast-food court, the spread is humble: canned tuna, raisins, boxed rice, tomato soup and stack upon stack of ramen noodles. So, too, are the messages scrawled on a clipboard hanging nearby.
"Thanks I'm poor."
"Aint got no money."
The food bank is a single metal rack, erected in early September. What makes it exceptional is that it is in the Mountainlair, West Virginia University's student union. While the university has held food drives for the needy before, this food bank, called "The Rack," is meant for students, young people who likely look much like the hoodie-clad youth eating pizza in the adjacent cafeteria.
By opening the food bank, WVU has joined a small group of colleges that recognize poverty can hide anywhere, even under the gloss of football tailgating, Frisbee and all-nighters.
"I think it's a great idea," said Julie Koval, 21, a WVU senior from Johnstown, Pa. "We're all strapped for cash."
College students with mounting bills often scrimp on food, said the Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood, who oversees the Cornucopia Food Pantry at the University of New Hampshire.
"I see students working one or two jobs, full course load, every kind of scholarships and loans they can think of," said Brickner-Wood, the campus chaplain. "... They're eating one meal a day, or they're eating food on the run."
The Cornucopia Food Pantry is one of the nation's earliest food banks intended for campus use. It opened in 1997; Michigan State University started one in 1993. Today, Cornucopia serves 20 to 30 families per week, often those of international students, single parents or lower-paid staff members, Brickner-Wood said.
Inspired by an article about a similar initiative at UCLA, WVU staff members decided this summer to start their own food bank.
"We just asked ourselves, is this happening on WVU's campus?" said Jacqueline Dooley, WVU's program coordinator for student organizations.
The university purchased the metal rack. Staffers filled it with food and started accepting donations. So far, traffic through "The Rack" has been quiet. About 30 students out of the school of nearly 30,000 have signed the clipboard, on which people taking food are asked to leave their first names.
The university has refilled the rack weekly to accommodate need, and staff members are encouraged by the messages: "Thank you! I was starving!!" wrote one student.
Scholarships and loans help students from low-income families pay tuition they could not afford otherwise. Sixty-seven percent of WVU students receive financial aid, and 50 percent of the students on the school's main campus take out loans. About 6,200 students receive federal Pell Grants, reserved for the nation's neediest students.
But tuition is only part of a student's costs. As a WVU tuition fact sheet notes: "Room, board, transportation and personal expenses are extremely variable costs and can consume the biggest part of your budget at WVU."
Seeking savings or a different environment, many students move off campus after freshman year and forgo the meal plan, in which freshman are required to participate. Overall, just 26.5 percent of WVU students rely on the university for their food.
"We do have students who are actually homeless," said Katherine Morgan, 19, a junior from Prince George's County, Md.
Students may be embarrassed to admit that they need help to afford food, said Antonio Sandoval, director of the Community Programs Office at the University of California, Los Angles. To lessen the stigma, the UCLA food bank does not require an application or intake counseling. Neither does the WVU food bank.
Because of that, the project's success is predicated on students' goodwill, said A.C. Weber, a 23-year-old senior from Baltimore. "It just depends on students not taking more than they need," Weber said.
So far, the food bank's biggest hurdle appears to be outreach.
Of several students interviewed in the Mountainlair, all thought the food bank was an important resource -- but only two knew it existed before a reporter told them.
"What is 'The Rack?"' one student muttered, walking past the display of Chef Boyardee cans and fruit cups.
Since The Rack opened, WVU has been contacted by curious staff members from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
Contact Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Vivian Nereim at vnereim(at)post-gazette.com.