College Students Facing Significant Food Shortages, Universities Trying to Help

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 31, 2015 at 3:07 pm
College Students Facing Significant Food Shortages, Universities Trying to Help

There’s a difference between living frugally during your college years and wondering where your next meal will come from.  A recent report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab reveals that a large number of community college students are at risk of hunger.

The purpose of the HOPE Lab? To find ways to make college more affordable.  The Hungry to Learn report surveyed 4,000 people 10 community colleges.  “We asked students to report on their financial hardships, their emotional challenges, and their food and housing needs,” explain authors Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katharine Broton, and Daniel Eisenberg.

21% of student responders had very low food security, based on the USDA’s definitions.  That means a person has multiple instances of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns.  Another 19% had low food security.  The survey inquired about being able to purchase balanced foods, running out of food or money, and not eating enough.

The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) is an organization with over 200 members—all schools with services to provide food to students who do not have enough.  Just a year ago, there were fewer than 50 members, indicating how much awareness of the problem has grown—along with need.  Hunger is a serious barrier to learning, as most of us know from even missing one meal.  And for students to enroll in college but not be able to take care of themselves and optimize their educational experience is problem.

The November 2015 National Survey on Student Engagement revealed that financial stress is one of the primary concerns for today’s college students.  Programs to get more young people into college have been successful, but less successful are efforts to build confidence and stability once they are enrolled.  The HOPE Lab report found more than 50% of students with living arrangement issues, from having to move repeatedly to not being able to pay rent or utilities.  Such strains get in the way of academic success, keeping students focused on basic survival rather than education.

When reached by email, Katharine Broton of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the co-authors of the report, said, “We need to re-examine our social policies to ensure that they promote our nation’s college completion goals. Currently, it is very difficult for a college student with financial need to access SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), which is one of our country’s most effective anti-poverty programs.”  Many of the community services available for those in need are unknown to students, or they are ineligible because of residency or exemption issues.

Shannon McAvoy is part of The Pantry at Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Connecticut.  A former NCC student, she’s now working with AmeriCorps Vista on a three year project to create a food pantry for the campus.  “The need is great,” says McAvoy.  She was a single parent and student herself and remembers being assigned $200 textbooks, wondering if she’d have to choose between buying food or doing well in the class.

At NCC, there are no income verification requirements; students hear about The Pantry through the campus newspaper, student services, or word of mouth.  Student members, as users are called, can visit twice a month and receive ten items each time.  In the 10 months since opening, 118 students have become members.  Many are heads of household (49% parents) or contributing to a whole family budget, so 325 people are being fed by the program in total.

For those not currently facing food insecurity, McAvoy recommends getting involved anyway.  Food pantries on campuses or in communities rely on volunteers.  If you are a student or the family member of a student, find out what services are available in your area.  “Know your community resources,” says McAvoy.  There are religious charities, domestic violence centers, and all sorts of services designed to help citizens in times of crisis.

According to a 2014 Feeding America report, 10% of their 46.5 million clients are students.  31% of students say they’ve had to choose between paying for food or paying for education.  MSNBC coverage of the study notes that food insecurity rose dramatically after the 2008 recession, by 24% in just one year.

While stigma about needing help may be decreasing as more and more students are in dire financial circumstances, it is never easy.  Campuses nationwide are trying to balance student needs with privacy and dignity.  San Diego community colleges are serving more than 300 students a week with emergency food supplies, as well as interview clothing and haircuts.  If education is the key to career success, schools will have to find creative ways to support students on their path forward.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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