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Helping the Hungry: Campus Food Pantries Can Be Lifesavers for Struggling Students. But Are Colleges and Universities Doing Enough?
Soon after Greenfield Community College opened its food pantry in 2012, Jan Ross welcomed a student in need. The new pantry wasn’t big—about thirty feet long and twelve feet wide—but as Ross discussed the application process, she quickly knew it would change the student’s life.
“You don’t know how much this is going to help me,” the student told Ross, a pantry volunteer and administrative assistant to the dean of humanities at the roughly three thousand–student Massachusetts college. “I have two children. And the other day when we were at the store, all my daughter wanted for her birthday was for me to make her brownies. And I had to say no, because we couldn’t afford to buy the brownie mix and still get enough food to feed us.”
Ross turned and pointed to a brownie mix box on the shelf.
“She looked at me, and I looked at her, and the two of us stood there and cried,” Ross says. “And I said, ‘Now your daughter can have her birthday brownie.’ ”
Eight years later, that moment still fuels Ross’s passion for the pantry, which provides about nine thousand pounds of supplies a year to roughly 100 to 120 students. The goods include not only food but personal-care items, from shampoo and laundry detergent to diapers—“all of those things you can’t use food stamps for,” Ross says.
But something has changed during Ross’s years as a volunteer. The need for the pantry’s services, she’s found, has steadily grown—and COVID-19 is making it worse. In a survey of more than thirty-eight thousand students in twenty-six states conducted from mid-April 2020 to mid-May 2020 by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 44 percent of students at two-year institutions reported food insecurity, up from 42 percent before the pandemic. At four-year institutions, the rate was 38 percent, up from 33 percent. Nearly six out of every ten students were enduring basic needs insecurity, which includes necessities such as housing, health care, and transportation.
The problems are more severe for students of color. The percentage of African Americans who reported basic needs insecurity was 19 points higher in the Hope survey than for White students. A Hope Center report from February 2020, based on five years of survey results, notes that “Black and Indigenous students, students identifying as nonbinary or transgender, students enrolled part-time, and students who are former foster youth or returning citizens [are] at greater risk of basic needs insecurity.”
“Food insecurity is almost always coupled with housing, homelessness, being able to pay bills,” Ross says. “A lot of students are couch surfing. And that makes it difficult because then they don’t even have a place to store their food.”
In the Hope Center survey, 11 percent of students at two-year institutions were experiencing homelessness due to the pandemic. At four-year institutions, 15 percent were. And despite the perception that most college students are wide-eyed eighteen-year-olds, roughly 40 percent of college students are age twenty-five or older, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Many are parents, many have lost jobs, and the economic toll is forcing brutal decisions not only about whether to buy a textbook or groceries but whether to stay in school.
“Food insecurity is a symptom of a larger issue, which is that the cost of attending college is really, really high for some students,” says Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at NASPA, a national association of student affairs professionals. And hunger can affect student performance. In May 2020, the Urban Food Policy Institute at the City University of New York (CUNY) issued a report on food insecurity at CUNY’s twenty-five campuses and found that students who were hungry “often or sometimes” in the previous twelve months were twice as likely to have failed out of a degree program as students who had not experienced hunger. Twenty-one percent reported a GPA of less than or equal to 2.5.
“If you’re hungry or you don’t have a place to live, you cannot focus on completing your homework, much less on learning, because you’re in survival mode,” says Paula Umaña, director of community impact for the Hope Center. “The consequences of not meeting students’ basic needs are not only physical but intellectual, emotional, and societal.”
Food pantries are becoming as ubiquitous on campuses as classrooms and quads. More than seven hundred campus food banks are members of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, and a NASPA survey of roughly five hundred campuses found that half offer resources to address food insecurity.
Food issues are more pronounced at community colleges, where roughly one-third of students receive federal Pell Grants, the US Department of Education reports. Anywhere from 42 percent to 67 percent of community college students experience food insecurity, various surveys have found, and at some campuses, adjunct faculty are clients as well.
“It’s a small amount, but sometimes even they have trouble meeting needs,” says Ross of Greenfield Community College.
At Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, the pantry is located in the campus’s Thrive Center, which offers assistance on issues ranging from legal aid and health insurance to credit repair. It provides students in need with toiletries, baby supplies, and nonperishable food, and it gives students access to water and snacks before exams and classes (with a microwave available for use). A 2019 basic needs survey found that 56 percent of Holyoke students had experienced difficulty buying groceries in the previous twelve months. Fifty-three percent worried that their food would run out, 44 percent had cut the size of their meals, 42 percent had skipped meals, and 33 percent received free food. When students apply for emergency funding because of food-related needs, they are immediately connected to the college’s food pantry, which also links them to additional resources and government agencies, says Holyoke’s president, Christina Royal.
Students at Greenfield Community College can pick up a monthly bag of nonperishable food and weekly perishables such as meat, milk, cheese, bread, and vegetables. (Some of the vegetables come from gardens at the college, and a community leader donated a refrigerator to help preserve the food.) The impact can extend beyond an individual student.
“If students are living at home, and there’s mom and dad and three brothers and sisters, they’re getting food for six people,” Ross says. “So, we technically are supporting the student, but it’s also their whole family.”
Four-year institutions are also addressing food insecurity. When the nonprofit Community Food Share began distributing food once a week throughout the summer of 2020 at the University of Colorado Boulder, 53 percent of the more than three thousand recipients were students (32 percent were CU staff and faculty, and 15 percent were community members), according to the Daily Camera, a weekly newspaper in Boulder. The university previously had offered mobile food pantries but now plans to create a permanent on-campus food bank.
At Michigan State University, the MSU Student Food Bank was the nation’s first food bank run by students, for students, when it was founded in 1993. The program is available for students who do not have an MSU dining plan and are enrolled for fall or spring classes. The goal: to help students cut their grocery bills by at least half. Each year, the food bank distributes more than 110,000 pounds of food to more than six thousand students. To provide students with fresh produce, director Nicole Edmonds—a registered dietician—has spearheaded partnerships with a regional food bank, on-campus student organic farms, and other local farms. Students, she’s found, are grateful for the options and the assistance, which help ease their financial woes.
“They often say that they wouldn’t have graduated without us,” she says. “They could work fewer hours, or didn’t have to work more than one job, which would force them to miss classes.” Some students have even proceeded with plans to start a family: “They say having a family through grad school wouldn’t have been possible without the food bank.”
Food insecurity is often one piece of a larger financial and personal puzzle, which is why institutions such as St. John’s University, a private Catholic university in New York, take a broad approach to the problem, focusing more on emergency aid and long-term solutions.
“Some campuses think, ‘We have a food bank so we’re good.’ Well, not really, because that isn’t going to address everybody’s needs,” says Kathryn Hutchinson, vice president for the Division of Student Affairs at St. John’s. Students may have access to food but face other challenges, such as paying for medications. The idea, she says, is to think about the questions students should have asked you, rather than simply what they did ask you.
“We’re meeting students who are in crisis or have an immediate need, and then we start to have conversations about how we can help them stabilize over time,” she says.
RAs, student leaders, and orientation leaders are trained to send students dealing with food insecurity issues to the Office of Student Affairs (roughly 40 percent of the annual incoming class at St. John’s is high-need). Students can complete an online form, which goes to three people on Hutchinson’s team, who typically contact the student within forty-eight hours and conduct a needs assessment.
“Right now, they’re only thinking about that one issue, but there might be other ways we can assist them,” Hutchinson says. “They might be saying, ‘I don’t have enough money to buy my train pass to get to work.’ And we’ll say, ‘OK, we can give you some metro cards. But how are you doing around food?’ ‘Yeah, well, that’s a problem too.’ So that brief assessment is to get a better picture of the needs and educate them about the options. That’s better than fixing one short-term problem and having all these other pieces.” Within a week to ten days, Hutchinson’s office checks in to see how they’re doing and if they need more guidance. “We really become partners,” she says.
In 2012–13, as a senior at the University of Arkansas, Brandon Mathews interned at the campus food pantry and eventually oversaw its day-to-day operations. But he was also a client. Despite working thirty to forty hours a week for Blockbuster while attending classes, Mathews struggled to cover his living expenses and even pawned electronics to pay his rent. Food assistance helped him lower his debt levels and earn his degree, but his gratitude was mixed with shame.
“As a young Black man, having to turn to the pantry was a pretty low place,” he says. “My mom and dad taught me to be proud of myself. I felt like I was another statistic, and I didn’t want to be that.”
Today, Mathews is not only a consultant for small businesses and nonprofits but associate director of campus resources for the College and University Food Bank Alliance (he’s also worked as a major gifts officer for a regional food bank). Reducing the stigmas around food banks starts with changing terms such as “emergency aid,” Mathews believes. “How we talk about it is probably the biggest barrier,” he says.
In August 2020, Mathews appeared on an online panel with a community college president who noted that when his institution promoted emergency aid resources after the COVID-19 outbreak, few students responded. “Emergency aid” is loaded with stigmas, the president said, so the college redrafted the language.
“The idea is that instead of saying this is emergency aid, you say, this is a program to help all students succeed,” Mathews says. “It’s not saying, ‘Hey, you’re down on your luck—here’s a handout.’ It’s saying, this is available to all who need it.”
To further reduce stigmas, many institutions also create a welcoming environment at food pantries. At Holyoke, the Thrive Center includes a coffee and conversation area to normalize access to the center and the pantry. MSU emphasizes a positive atmosphere.
“All students must feel that the food bank is a safe place for them to go,” says MSU’s Edmonds. “When new clients come in the door, they’re greeted with positivity and smiles—a small detail that is sometimes overlooked. Our ordering process also allows students to make their own choices. Too many food banks have premade bags, and everyone receives the same thing. Providing many options and giving students a choice combats that feeling of potential shame or discomfort since our process does not clump all people into one group.”
Discretion is also important for many students. That’s why many pantries use nondescript brown bags and allow students to schedule their pickup times.
“You want to give the students as much space and privacy as they need,” says Bob Pura, who served as Greenfield Community College’s president from 2000 to 2018. “And when they see how many others are also unfortunately struggling with food insecurity, I think it becomes less of a stigma.”
Student referrals can also help. Most clients learn about MSU’s food bank from friends, classmates, or others who have received food. “We have tried new messaging, a new logo, and educational videos to teach students about our service and make them more comfortable, but we still find the best way to reach them is through their peers,” Edmonds says.
Yet COVID-19 is complicating peer referrals by preventing on-campus gatherings while simultaneously increasing the need for food assistance. At Holyoke, 97 percent of applications for Student Emergency Fund dollars during the 2019–20 academic year arrived between mid-March and early August. Students nationwide who lived on campus and had a meal plan may now be in less stable off-campus situations. Some are homeless.
Even though many campuses are closed, most pantries still provide food, maintaining social distancing through methods such as curbside pickup. Other pantries are delivering food to students’ homes.
“There is a keen sensitivity to the challenges that the pandemic has brought,” says Pura, who is coauthoring a book for the Association of American Colleges and Universities on the relationship between community colleges and democracy. “A majority of community college students are students of color from families and communities that this pandemic has put at most risk. And so the issues of race and poverty are combining in toxic ways. People are out of work. People are forced to work and are getting sick. Those most at risk have become even more at risk. People go to college because they want a better life, but I think the pandemic has created yet another barrier for students to reach their potential.”
Improving the situation involves multiple steps, such as better informing students of assistance. According to the Hope survey, three in four students, across all institution types, were working before the pandemic—and a third of them then lost their jobs. Yet only 21 percent filed for unemployment insurance, only 15 percent for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and just 15 percent for emergency aid. Almost two million students are eligible for SNAP, a 2018 Government Accountability Office report found, but they’re unaware or don’t understand the process.
“We need to help students understand that they may be eligible, and colleges need to help them apply, because students do not know how to apply,” the Hope Center’s Umaña says. The stress of the pandemic can also make it harder to decipher procedures for applications, she says. “Students are being retraumatized by the pandemic. They’ve experienced trauma before, and now this pandemic is bringing additional elements of trauma. We cannot expect that our students are just functioning normally and can prioritize and make all the decisions in the right way. They need help.”
The Hope Center has been promoting free tools to assist with FAFSA applications. Some schools assist students with HIP (Healthy Incentives Program) applications through SNAP. In July, more than two hundred organizations asked Congress to suspend the SNAP work requirement for students enrolled in postsecondary education. But campuses also need to promote their own services. Fewer than one in four CUNY students knew about on-campus food assistance, a 2018 survey found. To solve that, some universities ask their professors to include food assistance information on syllabuses.
“The number of people around the country, in and out of colleges, who are one paycheck away from hunger is astonishingly high,” Pura says. “Sometimes it’s a choice between childcare and rent and tuition and food, and those are choices that people in this country, the richest country in the history of the world, should not be having today. We have to help our students.”
Boost Your Food Bank
Want to create or enhance your own campus food pantry? Keep these tips in mind.
→ Get expert assistance: The College and University Food Bank Alliance offers a food bank toolkit. You can also find tools and resources at StudentArc.org.
→ Survey students: Greenfield Community College’s food bank has conducted surveys, offering incentives to participate, such as gift cards for dining services. “We did a lot of listening, and then we were able to zero in on what our students need,” says Jan Ross, a pantry volunteer and administrative assistant at Greenfield.
→ Promote the pantry: Students don’t always know that a food bank exists, so communication is critical, whether it’s through social media or referrals from faculty, staff, or fellow students. Some faculty put information about emergency resources on their syllabi.
→ Offer fresh foods: Partner with groups like community food banks, local farms, and student-run gardens to offer produce, not just processed foods. “Food insecurity and lack of variety and nutritional value can affect educational performance,” says Nicole Edmonds, director of the MSU Student Food Bank at Michigan State University.
→ Consolidate assistance: Holyoke Community College has one specific department and location to address areas such as food, housing, health insurance, and credit issues. “This provides students with a one-stop resource center without being referred all over campus and having to tell their story repeatedly,” says Christina Royal, Holyoke’s president.
Ken Budd has written for publications such as the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and National Geographic, and he is the former editor-in-chief of Currents, an international magazine on higher education published by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. He is also the author of the memoir The Voluntourist.