The rising cost of produce, skyrocketing gas prices and a lack of rental assistance have made it difficult for students like Jennifer Rahall — a single mom juggling three kids, two jobs and courses at Massachusetts Bay Community College — to stay afloat.
But on-campus initiatives and resources can help. As a recipient of MassBay’s food scholarship, for example, Rahall receives gift cards to local grocery stores, helping her to put food on the table.
“I try to put what we really need first, mostly my kids’ needs, and food is up there at the top,” she says. “It’s been very stressful, but with this food scholarship, it’s taken that part off my plate.”
Rahall is not alone in worrying about basic needs: 38% of students at two-year colleges experienced food insecurity in fall 2020, along with 29% of students at four-year colleges. The number is much higher among students of color, according to The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice’s #RealCollegeSurvey published in March 2021.
The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic — furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs — as well as recent high inflation rates have made food insecurity worse over the past few years, advocates say.
“We are seeing students who are not returning to school, students who are choosing to go back to work,” says Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, a national nonprofit that addresses hunger among college students. “But if they knew that their school had resources for them, we know that it would be different.”
What Is Food Insecurity?
Food insecurity, as measured by the Agriculture Department, means a household has “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
Students who face insecurity around basic needs like food or housing are more likely to report experiencing poor physical health, symptoms of depression and higher stress, which can affect student outcomes, according to the Hope Center survey.
“When that basic need is not met, it is more difficult to stay awake, pay attention and absorb knowledge,” says Jacki Dougherty, a master’s student and graduate teaching assistant for SNAP Outreach at Oregon State University. “We aren’t able to advance along our other needs because we are facing hunger.”
In addition to college students, food insecurity sometimes affects others within the campus community, including faculty members and staff. For instance, 26% of adjunct faculty reported having trouble accessing adequate food or having to reduce the amount of food they ate, according to a 2020 American Federation of Teachers report.
Ways Colleges Tackle Food Insecurity
College food pantries take on different forms, with some distributing fresh groceries to students and staff, while others focus on nonperishable items or frozen meals.
The University of North Carolina Asheville hosts a weekly food distribution event on campus as part of its student-run Food Equity Initiative. Most of the food is nonperishable — donated from Ingles Markets, a regional grocery store chain — with produce from the campus garden available seasonally. Prior to COVID-19, the program also included community meals, workshops and foraging education, which teaches students about where food comes from and how to search for it in nature.
“We don’t do means testing so we don’t require people to prove anything to access food because everybody needs food,” says Jordan Perry, the university’s healthy campus liaison. “Our thinking is that it helps lessen some of the stigma. If it’s something available to everybody, then it’s not necessarily pointing a finger at the people who (need to) access food.”
At Saint Xavier University in Illinois, students, faculty, staff and their families can access nonperishable items, toiletries and feminine hygiene products at Champ’s Kitchen, a food pantry on campus. The program plans to eventually include healthier and more culturally inclusive meal options.
“Since the implementation of Champ’s Kitchen, we’ve seen students, staff and faculty creating awareness around food insecurity,” says Josh Bogaski-Baugh, the university’s executive director of student success. “We’ve seen it on social media and within the classroom.”
Meal Swipe Donations
With limitations to rollovers, many students with meal plans are often left with extra meal swipes at the end of a semester or academic year. One option to avoid wasting meals is by donating them.
Swipe Out Hunger, for instance, partners with hundreds of colleges to give students facing food insecurity unused meal plan benefits. In addition to student donations, some colleges set aside a certain number of meal swipes to give away each year.
Many colleges rely on local organizations to fund or donate to food programs on campus.
MassBay, for example, recently partnered with Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform Jewish congregation in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to provide free home-cooked meals. Through the TBE Table program, volunteers prepare, freeze and deliver 120 meals to students every other week.
“For students who are low-income… or they are adults who want to pursue a degree, we are not as generous of a society as we’d like to think we are,” says David Podell, president of MassBay. “Food is pretty central to life. Without support for food, it’s hard to imagine students succeeding in college.”
For years, few students qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal resource that allows eligible individuals or families to purchase food each month at grocery stores or farmers markets. But guidelines changed under the Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2021 to allow undergraduate students who are work-study eligible or have an expected family contribution of zero to enroll in SNAP.
To explain how to use SNAP and to help with the application process, schools like Oregon State developed a peer-to-peer SNAP outreach program.
“We really believe in the power of students helping students,” says Nicole Hindes, director of the Human Services Resource Center at Oregon State. “When a student is helping another student with a SNAP application, it sometimes feels like it’s your friend helping you. That makes it more accessible and feel lower-stakes. We are seeing the power of relationships, connections and community.”
How to Address Food Insecurity Stigma
Students may be hesitant to ask for help out of fear of being judged, some observers say, due to a stigma associated with food insecurity.
But colleges can shift the narrative by creating basic needs hubs on campus that include services like mental health assistance and child care, as well as making students feel less alone. For instance, Sumekh suggests, wording of a campus advertisement can be changed from “are you hungry, come to this location” to “last week, two out of three students came by the food pantry to receive free food.”
“The best thing we can do to address stigma is change the culture on campus to be representative” of all students, she adds. “Having more of these (basic needs) programs makes students feel like they are allowed to ask for help.”
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