Food pantries work to end campus hunger

As food insecurity rises on campus, leaders launch programs to end it

For a growing number of college students—as well as some faculty and staff—concerns about where their next meal will come from make it difficult to focus on studies or work. Recent estimates indicate that about half of U.S. college students experience some form of food insecurity in which they lack the resources to feed themselves nutritiously and/or consistently.

That percentage often varies greatly by region, and even by individual schools, but the true number is not known. 

“Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education does not systematically track food insecurity or hunger among college students, so it’s very difficult to know how that trend has been changing over time,” says Katie Broton, an assistant professor of higher education and sociology at The University of Iowa, and an affiliate of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“What we do know is over the past several decades, as the price of college has increased, need-based financial aid has been stagnant, so what we see is a growing net price of college,” says Broton. “And that net price has increased at the same time that family income for most Americans—those in the middle and lower classes—has been stagnant.”

Food insecurity is not isolated
The problem exists in varying degrees on just about every campus, even when a meal plan is part of the enrollment package. According to research by the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), an organization of campus-based programs focused on alleviating food insecurity, hunger and poverty among college students, at least 43% of food-insecure students have a meal plan. But when the funds in that plan deplete, or are used for other necessities, students often go hungry.

Community colleges are particularly hard hit. Many students there are from lower-income families and have to hold down jobs in addition to going to school. They are surviving paycheck to paycheck to feed themselves and their families. Low- to middle-income students already struggle to buy books and pay for transportation to get to class.

Some studies indicate that the number of food-insecure community college students exceeds the national average, which is detrimental to grades, attendance and concentration. 

According to the “2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study,” low-income students around the country are enrolling in college at increasing rates. But even with financial aid, 39% of undergraduates are at or below 130% of the 2016 federal poverty line. 

What’s being done 

As quickly as the problem grows, officials are addressing it.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year mandated that all New York public colleges—including the 64 schools in The State University of New York system and the 20 in The City University of New York network—would have a food pantry to provide “stigma-free food access.”

At the federal level, the College Student Hunger Act of 2019, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., is working its way through Congress. The legislation would make it easier for students to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including those who are homeless, who are in foster care or who are veterans.
Since 2011, the Food Recovery Network has been recovering campus dining hall food that would otherwise go to waste and donating it to those in need.

With 230 chapters, the national nonprofit unites students at colleges and universities to fight food waste and hunger. Over the years, the network has recovered more than 3.9 million pounds of food and donated 3.2 million meals. 

Some colleges and universities are also implementing emergency grant aid programs, notes Broton. “There’s a growing body of research showing that providing students with emergency grant aid, often a few hundred dollars, can really be the difference between staying in school versus dropping out.”

And getting to the root of the problem, the Kingsborough Community College Urban Farm in Brooklyn, New York, grows organic farm-to-pantry produce year-round. The majority of the fruit and vegetables it produces are free for members of KCC’s 14,000-student population.

Food pantries on the rise

Around the country, colleges and universities are opening food pantries to help ease student hunger. CUFBA’s ever-expanding member list now includes nearly 700 campus food pantries—often working with their local communities—in an effort to combat food insecurity. The organization also offers toolkits that include the information and resources needed to start a food pantry and keep it running effectively.

While their missions are similar, campus food pantries often have their own approaches and philosophies. Some of those include:

  • ThePantry@Tunxis Community College in Connecticut opened in 2016. A joint effort of staff and students, it is run by volunteers from all parts of the college community.
  • Knights Pantry at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, is a no-cost food pantry for students, made possible through a partnership with the Dare to Care network of community food banks. Students can access the pantry anytime and take whatever they need. Information on their use of the pantry is private and what a student takes is not tracked.
  • The Cherry Pantry at Temple University opened in 2018 and supplies nutritious emergency food while emphasizing the equal treatment of all who visit the pantry. Its guiding principle is: “Access to healthy and nutritious food is a basic human right.”
  • The Aggie Cupboard at New Mexico State University provides free supplementary food assistance to the NMSU community, including DoÁ±a Ana Community College students, faculty and staff. Typically, the nonperishable nutritious food includes staples such as proteins, vegetables, soups, beans, rice, and pasta and sauce. Fruit, cereals, snacks and beverages are offered when available.
  • The Ole Miss Food Bank at The University of Mississippi fights hunger and alleviates poverty by discreetly providing free nutritious food  as well as hygiene products to all university students, faculty and staff.
  • Mo’s Cupboard at Moravian College in Pennsylvania provides shelf-stable food items, toiletries, and dorm and cleaning supplies to any Moravian undergraduate, graduate or seminary student in need. It also provides information on various community resources.
  • The mission of The Store at The George Washington University is to offer food and other resources to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed. Unlike some other campus operations, however, GW students who want to use the pantry must fill out an application and provide their school and password.

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