My oldest son, a sophomore in high school, recently took the PSAT. Consequently, we now have a flood of college materials pouring into our house. Some days he gets more mail than everyone else in the house combined. Some of the colleges just send postcards directing him to the website, while others send packets with color pictures and testimonials highlighting the good qualities of their school. What none of these materials highlight, however, is the campus food pantry and/or other services the university provides to students struggling with food insecurity, and yet a growing number of colleges and universities house a food pantry on their campuses in an effort to assist these students, whose numbers ballooned after the recession and show no signs of deflating. I was alerted to this issue by a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition and after some more research I was surprised to learn that there are 447 member institutions registered with College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), a national organization co-founded by the campus food pantries at Michigan State University and Oregon State University to support campus food banks currently in operation as well as those just opening.* I was equally surprised to learn that all 3 of the universities my husband and I attended now had food pantries on their campuses.
In order to better understand college campus food insecurity issues, CUFBA joined forces with three other campus based organizations to survey students, who attended eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities, located in 12 states. Between the months of March and May 2016 these groups talked with 3,765 students from these institutions and produced a report titled, Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, which was released in October 2016. The study found that food insecurity can be found at both two and four year institutions, with two year institutions experiencing higher levels, 25% and 20%, respectively. Food insecurity was higher among students of color and first generation college students. The study also found that students who experience food insecurity are likely to be struggling with housing insecurity, like trouble paying the rent, mortgage or other utility bills. As a result of these struggles, the study found that the educational efforts of these students have been hampered or harmed because the students have not been unable to afford to buy textbooks or their situation has caused them to either miss classes or even drop a course.
A reasonable response to this study’s findings would be to suggest that these students get a job or avail themselves of the resources, like SNAP, already offered to those suffering from food insecurity. The study found that over half (56%) already did have a job and 38% of those employed worked over 20 hours per week. Working at least 20 hours per week is a requirement for any student who receives SNAP benefits, of which 25% of food insecure students reported receiving. Additionally, three fourths of food insecure students receive financial aid. Fifty two percent receive Pell Grants and 37% took out student loans. Finally, being on a meal plan does not guarantee that students will not experience food insecurity. According to the survey, among the food insecure respondents from 4 year institutions, 43% reported being enrolled in some type of meal plan. The fact that so many of these food insecure students are already taking action to help make attending college possible suggests that more needs to be done to understand their struggles and assist them during their time in college.
The report offers some recommendations to colleges and universities to address the issue of food insecurity on their campuses. To date most of the initiatives in place on college campuses, like campus food pantries or dining center meal donation programs, like Swipes at Columbia University, have all been student initiatives. The recommendation section of this report suggests that university administrations support and further develop campus based initiatives which address food insecurity, including but not limited to, food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery programs, dining center meal donation programs and coordinated benefit access programs. In addition to working creatively on their campuses to address student food insecurity, college and university administrators should implement programs that promote college affordability, for instance creating resources which help make textbooks more affordable, like a book scholarship. Implementing an emergency grant fund, like the one offered at CUNY, will aid students who are food insecure and are likely struggling to continue to afford college deal with any unexpected expense which could cause them to have to leave school.
The effort to assist college students who are struggling with food insecurity should not end with the immediate steps taken by college and university administrators. The report details a list of recommendations federal policymakers should take to improve the situation of students experiencing food insecurity. The first action suggested is to include food security questions on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), administered annually by the National Center for Education Statistics, which will provide policymakers with the data to better understand the depth of the situation and assess potential solutions. Simplifying the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students and removing the 20 hour per week work requirement for students enrolled at least half time are also suggestions made by the report. Finally, included in the suggestions is a call to improve the federal aid process for homeless students, including the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
When I went to college, I was able to pay half of my college tuition at a reasonably priced state university using money I had saved from working while in high school, supplemented with money earned by working a few hours a week while at college and full time in the summer. Gone are the days when many college students are able to work to put themselves through college, at least not at a normal college pace of 4-5 years to complete a Bachelor’s Degree. College tuition has skyrocketed, even at the once reasonably priced state institutions, and financial aid for low income students, like Pell Grants, is less readily available, making it more difficult, if not almost impossible for some to be able to afford college. At the same time, colleges are seeing a rise in nontraditional students–lower income students, first generation college students and adults, some with families, fully responsible for their own living expenses–enrolling in higher education. These new college enrollees present college and university administrations with a set of challenges few are likely to have previously faced, but these challenges are not insurmountable. The ability of these college students experiencing food insecurity to succeed at college is as important as any other college student’s ability to succeed at college. Ensuring their success is important to the vitality of our nation’s work force and the strength of our economy.
* To illustrate the seriousness of this situation on college campuses, I initially did my research in January and on 1/17/17 CUFBA listed 434 member campus food pantries. When I rechecked that number today (2/15/17) the total number of campus food pantry members had risen by 13 to 447 in less than a month.
West Chester University Food Pantry which partners with Chester County Food Bank