The new amenity at North Hennepin and Normandale community colleges this fall is not a fancy dorm or a high-tech classroom.

It's a little office filled with nonperishable food.

Food shelves are popping up on campuses across the state and country, serving students who struggle to afford lunch along with tuition, fees and books. They're most common at community colleges, which serve a larger share of low-income students.

Anoka Technical College has one. So does Central Lakes College. Metropolitan State University is talking about opening one. Century College, too.

"This was the brainchild of two business students who knew of students in their class who were hungry," said Troy Nellis, director of service learning at North Hennepin, where 67 percent of students have low incomes.

When Nellis announced the food shelf's opening at an all-college meeting, he was "mobbed" by faculty and staff members who told him that they had "known many, many of my students who have gone hungry.

"It was unbelievable."

Before opening its Campus Cupboard this fall, Normandale Community College in Bloomington surveyed students and found that a fourth of the 445 who responded reported that they come to school hungry and "do not have enough money to buy food on campus."

"The faculty were shocked. We were shocked," said Wanda Kanwischer, assistant dean of students. "That definitely spurred us into action."

Paninis and paper towels

The Campus Cupboard "strives to meet the school- day nutritional needs of ... students experiencing financial challenges and food insecurity," its mission statement says. But students aren't stocking up on pounds of meat.

"We are not taking away from other services we have in our city, county and state for weekly or monthly food needs," Kanwischer said.

Helping students with food can boost their academic performance and even keep them in school, she added.

On a recent afternoon at North Hennepin, in Brooklyn Park, students were devouring turkey wraps and hot paninis in the Campus Center cafe. But up the stairs and around the corner is a tiny bright room with a different kind of menu: Dozens of cans of applesauce, pudding cups and boxes of macaroni and cheese.

"We did have paper towels and toilet paper," said Richard Barnier, a student and chair of the Campus Cupboard. "That went very quickly."

The food shelves work in different ways. North Hennepin's is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, while Normandale opens each weekday at 7:30 a.m. Central Lakes requires no sign-in, while others have students complete a form.

At Normandale, students show a campus ID, check a box and take as many as three items per visit, or 21 per month. The committee that formed the food shelf discussed how students would have to demonstrate need. They decided on an honor system.

"We're not giving away gold here," said Monica Saralampi, coordinator for the Center for Experiential Education. "We're talking about ramen, Easy Mac and granola bars."

Nicolette Koehler, a freshman, and her fiancé have stopped by Normandale's food shelf about once a week since spotting a flier. Her fiancé receives Supplemental Security Income for a disability, so she checks the box saying that someone in her household gets government assistance. On Thursday, the 20-year-old took tea, crackers and cookies before heading to an exam.

"It's a really good idea," she said. "But there are some people who are too embarrassed to go there. I would have been too embarrassed if my fiancé wasn't going there with me."

Finances are tight, Koehler said, and she lives with her father in Jordan to save money. But unlike this summer, when she "mooched off my dad," she can now afford to go grocery shopping, thanks to a part-time job at Subway.

Tuition, gas before groceries

Campus food banks are run by volunteers -- oftentimes students doing service learning -- and sustained by food drives and community donations. Some North Hennepin faculty and staff members contribute by bringing in cans, others through payroll deductions.

At Central Lakes College, which stocks a food shelf on its Brainerd and Staples campuses, employees e-mail one another with the week's Cub Foods specials, encouraging them to contribute. Hamburger Helper for 77 cents, Progresso soup for 77 cents and Wish-Bone salad dressing for $1.49. "Ranch went really fast," last week's e-mail said.

"Remember this is a great way to help with retention. Having adequate food keeps you focused!"

More students have been using the food shelf since the recession hit, officials there said, partly because they're offering more and better items but also because rising tuition has strained finances.

Janet Gontarek recently ushered a student to the food shelf on a Monday after he told her he had not eaten since Saturday. "He was really weak, you could tell," said Gontarek, a coordinator at Central Lakes. "He was putting his money into his gas tank before putting food on his table."

Sam Mitchell commutes 45 minutes to campus and spends most of her money "on gas and insurance," she said by phone. The first-year student, who is studying to be a dental assistant, frequents the food shelf because it's convenient, she said. "Anyone can go here," she said. "No one's watching. It's not like you have to be poor."

If it weren't around, she said, she would "find a different way to get food."

"A lot of people are struggling with money when they're going through college," Mitchell said. "The food shelf is nice to have, instead of having to worry about feeding yourself."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168