Food Is a Basic Need: Dealing With Hunger on College Campuses

By Wick Sloane

May 31, 2017

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This post is the second in a new series, Beyond the Margins: Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students

The federal government, with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has joined professors, administrators and policymakers alarmed at reports that the high costs of college tuition, textbooks, housing, transportation and much more are sending to class thousands, perhaps millions, of students who have not had anything to eat that day.

On March 20 of this year, a letter from the GAO arrived at the office of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA):

“Thank you for your letter, jointly signed by a number of your colleagues, requesting that the Government Accountability Office review the extent of food insecurity among students at U.S. colleges and universities . . . GAO accepts your request as work within the scope of its authority.”

For simmering issues without sufficient data, I have learned over the past 24 months, Congress may ask the GAO for a non-partisan, baseline study of the situation.

This is not a story of ravenous, growing adolescents and fixes of ramen noodles until the next electronic funds transfer from home. And to be sure, this is not famine. But when government and policy leaders are concerned that the completion rate for low-income students is often less than 50 percent, the GAO study is welcome recognition that factors outside of college classrooms can determine whether a student completes a postsecondary degree or certificate.

Every morning, Monday through Friday, at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston where I have worked for 10 years, the NGO Food Link delivers at my doors three, four, six cases of leftover bread from Panera and often salads and sandwiches from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. On a creaky, rattling cart, we roll this food down the hallways, past classrooms, up the elevator and into Single Stop, the local chapter of a national organization that helps students at 18 community colleges connect with food stamps and other social services right on campus.

Every day, the students know to come to Single Stop. No matter how many cases Food Link delivers, the food is gone by the end of the day. The students can also sign up for the monthly food pantry. On the third Wednesday of every month—the third because monthly food stamps barely last three weeks—the Greater Boston Food Bank delivers 5,000 pounds of groceries and produce, all gone in an orderly hour.

For many years, disbelief has been a major obstacle to addressing campus hunger and its bloodless synonym “food insecurity.” The first I wrote of this was in 2012 in an Inside Higher Ed piece titled “So My Students Can Eat.” That led to two public radio interviews, both of which began with the hosts admitting that they did not believe me that this could be true. I kept writing, and others did, too. Disbelief still makes sense to me. I cannot believe that cases of food arrive outside my door every morning at a college in Boston, Massachusetts.

In trying to understand the disbelief, I often hear two rationales. First, that college students could be this hungry is a shock. We think of student loans and the cost of textbooks and high tuition as obstacles. But hunger? Second, the idea of hunger in colleges in the United States in the 21st century for millions of students is scary, overwhelming. I agree. I am scared often that I will never find a solution for more than a few students.

All involved, including me, agree that still we do not have sufficient data for understanding and more than policy pilot tests. See for yourself what is known:

  • Forty percent of students at the City University of New York reported having been hungry in the past 12 months. This 2010-11 study, the first I know of, was the proverbial tree falling in the woods without anyone hearing. CUNY, however, responded with force.
  • Fifty percent of students surveyed in recent studies by the Wisconsin Hope Lab and Feeding America struggle with having enough food. In the most recent HOPE Lab study released earlier this year, which surveyed 33,000 students at 70 colleges, 13 percent of the students were also homeless.
  • The University of California (UC), led by its president Janet Napolitano, surveyed its 150,000 undergraduates, and found that in 2012 and 2014 26 percent were skipping meals to save money. UC now has a campus-wide task force on student hunger and homelessness.

Most unsettling, students in these studies so far cluster in the group that is the greatest national policy concern for higher education: low-income, first-generation students, most of whom are in community college. These are many of the same students whose high schools failed to prepare them with the basic skills needed to enter college taking college-level courses. According to the October 2016 report, The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, 56 percent of first generation students, again in the bloodless term, “experience food insecurity.” Leading the numbers are students of color.

The challenges to higher education are substantial, and even to experts are almost overwhelming. Finding appropriate teaching methods for such students, who may work 20 hours a week and have families and commutes, is vexing enough. Community colleges can be gateways for immigrants and refugees who are learning the ways of a new country, including English, and trying to earn education for an entry-level job. So far, society and too often higher education have been happy to leave the social and public health issues to community colleges where public funding per student can be less than that for elementary school.

What, Then, Can be Done?

All I know is that everyone involved needs to keep collecting data. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the HOPE Lab who led a 10-campus and now a 70-campus hunger study, is offering her questionnaire free to any campus to assess hunger and homelessness on their campus. This information would allow campuses to react quickly to their particular needs.

While a comprehensive, widespread solution has not yet been realized, remedies are emerging. Along with Single Stop, membership in the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) has more than doubled since 2015 to almost 500 campuses. The first opened in 1993 at Michigan State not to provide all the food a student needs but to cut their grocery bills in half. One of the newest to join is Klemi’s Kitchen at Georgia Tech, which “operates under the idea that no student at Georgia Tech should go hungry… our volunteers prepare individual meals from campus dining halls. We rescue food that would otherwise go to waste and use it to support students at Georgia Tech.”

Food pantries continue to grow, though no single source has emerged for stocking the pantries. Although Single Stop enables students to obtain food stamps, food stamps—known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program—do not work for cafeteria purchases on campus. Swipe Out Hunger and Share Meals invite students with food cards to donate extra swipes that translate into food and meals for hungry students. Mealbux at Oregon State lets eligible students receive several meals a week at any campus food outlet. At Humboldt State University (CA), students run OhSNAP, a food pantry, a weekly free farmers market, and provide access to food stamps.

The number of other emergency assistance programs on campuses continues to grow as well. The idea is that often smaller issues—a lost bus pass or a late utility bill—can cause a student to drop out of school. Cal State Long Beach provides emergency services from food to housing. For food for eligible students, the university puts money on the student’s meal card to prevent hungry students from feeling singled out.

Another strategy is to expand knowledge of hunger issues and to share what campuses have learned. Bunker Hill Community College convened representatives from 24 of the 25 state public colleges and universities May 5 at Voices of Hunger to develop data and policies to end student hunger, nationally and in Massachusetts.

The hunger issue spotlights again that federal financial aid alone is not enough for low-income and many first-generation students to do their best in school or, too often, even to stay in school. The Century Foundation is at work on a task force to estimate the full cost of attendance for these students. The state of Tennessee is experimenting with an 80 percent bonus for colleges who graduate low-income students.

With a proposed federal budget adding up to $45 billion on defense spending at the expense of all social services, where will money for student hunger and homelessness come from?

We have to keep looking.

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About the Author

Wick Sloane

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