Partnerships to end college hunger
On opening day one year, I met a freshman weeping on a bench near my office. I asked her what was wrong, and she sobbed, “They wouldn’t let me eat lunch.” A graduate of our local public schools, she did not realize she had to pay for lunch in college since she always had free lunch in school. She had only enough money to take the bus home.
I made sure she got lunch and then had a chat with the food service manager about accommodating students who need food. “Take their names, let them eat, send me the bill,” was the gist of my message.
Trinity Washington serves a remarkably low-income student body; more than 80 percent of the first-year class have Pell grants.
Food insecurity among our students from impoverished D.C. neighborhoods is not surprising, but a recent report by Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab and researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE lab reveals that as many as 36 percent of students across socio-economic levels experience food insecurity at some point during their college days.
Not your father’s food service
Like many universities, Trinity maintains a food pantry to help our hungry students; nearly 150 students used this service in the 2017-18 academic year. Trinity is one of more than 600 members of the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
Beyond food pantries, higher education needs more substantial changes in the structure of food service to accommodate new student populations—many more low-income students, part-time “post-traditional” students attending in new patterns, and traditional students facing increasing financial challenges with rising costs of attendance.
For generations, campus dining has operated according to conventional notions of who goes to college—the 18- to 22-year-old residential student whose parents pay the bills and who goes home at regular intervals on semester breaks.
Fewer than 20 percent of today’s college students match that old stereotype, but it remains the template for many food service contracts. The fundamental contract structures remain the same, including closure of the dining halls at specific intervals: a month around Christmas, a week during spring break, and two or three summer months.
Many universities offer a variety of course schedule options for the diverse student populations we serve, and what might be spring break for one group is a regular class week for others.
Residential undergraduates are not the only population that depends on campus dining. Professional students find it frustrating to arrive on campus for summer courses only to find no dining services open in June and July because “the kids” are gone.
Those “kids” are also less likely to be partying in Daytona and more likely to be working long hours during break periods—and they often stay close to campus during breaks and need dining options.
Restructuring dining service contracts to keep some meal service available challenges both colleges and food service partners to think creatively.
Operating a dining hall has real costs for labor, food and supplies, and estimating customer demand during breaks can be difficult. But a thoughtful assessment of the need for continuous dining options should be an essential part of institutional strategic planning.
Universities and food service partners must also find better solutions for the problem of food insecurity on campus. One solution allows students to donate swipes on their meal cards to help hungry peers.
Swipe Out Hunger is an organization that operates on three dozen campuses in 18 states. The program depends on a cooperative partnership between the university administration and dining service company. A business model that promotes student health will also be healthy in the long run for a university’s bottom line.
Healthy, happy students will become supportive alumni.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.