University of Oklahoma students work at the food pantry on campus. Research suggests that many college students regularly go hungry, and the number of on-campus food pantries has ballooned from 80 to around 800 in the past decade. (Courtesy of OU Food Pantry)
SOUTH BRONX, New York City — In the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest communities, Hostos Community College has long positioned itself as an educational pathway out of poverty. But to make that journey, many Hostos students must contend with more than their schoolwork.
Without the school’s child care center, students who are single parents would struggle to attend classes. Hostos offers legal and financial services to immigrant students who lack permanent legal status, so they can comfortably pursue a degree.
And because many Hostos students often go hungry, the school has its own food bank.
Hostos is not alone: The number of food pantries on U.S. college campuses has ballooned from 80 to around 800 in the past decade. Hunger on college campuses is not a new phenomenon, but advocates say awareness of the issue, as well as legislative action to address it, is increasing.
“Each college should have a food pantry, because students juggle so much, and there are some students who don’t have enough food to get them through the school day or the week,” said Madeline Cruz, who helps oversee the food pantry. She also assists Hostos students applying for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps.
“There are students that I know skipping meals because they can’t afford it,” Cruz said. “Our job as a support system is to meet them where they are at.”
In the past year, there were nearly 8,000 visits to the Hostos Food Pantry. Even when campus life paused during COVID-19 pandemic-era remote and virtual learning, the food pantry never closed its doors.
Food insecurity isn’t just a food issue, it’s also a housing issue. It’s an affordability and stability issue.
– Madeline Cruz, Hostos Community College
In a survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University in the fall of 2020 — during the height of the coronavirus pandemic — 29% of students at four-year institutions and 38% of those at two-year schools said they didn’t have access to enough food, or enough high-quality food, at some point in the previous month. The survey, the most recent available, was conducted at 202 colleges and universities in 42 states.
During the pandemic, the federal government expanded eligibility for SNAP to include college students on financial aid with no expected family support and those qualifying for work-study programs. The move added an estimated 3 million college students to the program, but on July 1, the temporary changes expired.
In the South Bronx, half of all households qualify for food stamps. Grocery stores are few and far between, and the cost of food in one of the world’s most expensive cities exceeds the budgets of many Hostos students, who also pay high prices for housing and other basic needs.
At many four-year colleges, meal plans alone typically can cost between $3,000 and $5,500 a year. Combined with tuition and housing, that cost can be out of reach for students who also must pay for textbooks and other basic needs.
“Food insecurity isn’t just a food issue, it’s also a housing issue. It’s an affordability and stability issue,” Cruz said. “When our students are dealing with all that, how can we expect them to succeed academically?”
Research links food insecurity — not having access to sufficient food, or food of an adequate quality, to meet one’s basic needs — to poor academic performance. Inadequate nutrition interferes with the learning process by making it difficult to concentrate, and hunger increases stress and depression.
In Oklahoma – one of the hungriest states in the nation — Matt Marks has seen how hunger has evolved on the Sooner State’s college campuses.
When Marks was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma in 2017, he campaigned for the opening of the OU Food Pantry; now the university pays him to run it. Last spring, the pantry served about 450 students and staff, up from about 180 in prior semesters, according to Marks.
Last week, when students and staff returned to campus, the pantry served 569 individual students and staff members, Marks said.
“Whether it’s the economy, inflation, COVID — times are tough for not just students but also our staff. This food pantry has been a lifeline for some students working multiple jobs, first-generation and international students,” he said. “It gives them a resource to try to take any stress or burden off of their plate.”
Awareness of the problem
An increasing number of states have taken steps to address the problem.
In the first effort of its kind, California in 2017 approved legislation allocating $7.5 million to state colleges and universities to develop meal credit sharing programs (which allow students to donate their unused dining hall meal points to others), create campus food pantries, and help eligible students sign up for food stamps.
Since then, nine more states — Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington — have enacted similar laws, according to the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger, the architect of the bills.
Earlier this month, Pennsylvania also announced that it would expand SNAP eligibility to include college students enrolled in certain employment and training programs.
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“It seemed like in 2017, we were trying to prove that food insecurity on college campuses was a thing we need to address and provide funding for,” said Robb Friedlander, director of advocacy for Swipe Out Hunger.
“But in the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen states commit to addressing hunger on college campuses. And the important piece of that is direct line funding for programs and pantries.”
Pantries that don’t have a stable stream of state funding often are forced to rely on food donations from local nonprofits, private partnerships or their own fundraising. Most can’t afford to be open more than once or twice a week.
“Campus staff and pantries need to have sustainable funding from institutions such as their state government or their schools they can count on, rather than the peaks and valleys of fundraising for essentials,” Friedlander said.
The Food Pantry at Hostos is one of 20 food banks on The City University of New York’s 25 campuses.
CUNY received $875,000 this year from the New York City Council to pay for food pantries and other nutritional programs and recently received grants of between $10,000 and $35,000 from a private foundation. The New York Senate approved a Swipe Out Hunger-backed bill this year, but the Assembly hasn’t yet acted on it.
The law enacted in Oklahoma in 2022 is a pilot program that provides funding to six schools, but the flagship University of Oklahoma is not one of them. So, the OU Food Pantry relies on private partnerships and funding from alumni, local nonprofits and private partnerships. With food demand on the rise, the food bank needs more money to pay for larger refrigerators and freezers, Marks said.
He added, however, that the pantry’s recent move to a newly renovated, central location on campus should help it serve more students at a time — and to expand its services to clothing, books and other supplies.
Another barrier is that many students, including those who are food insecure, aren’t aware campus food pantries exist, according to a national student online survey released last year by the Trellis Company, a Texas-based nonprofit student loan guarantor.
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Other students who know about pantries often don’t want to visit because of the stigma and shame associated with being hungry, according to a research paper by a group of University of Florida researchers.
“It’s a startling statistic when you think about how many people on a college campus don’t have enough to eat. There are times where you can feel there’s a stigma or a shame that may prevent them from asking for help,” said Marks.
“It’s why food pantries like ours are so important. We want a stigma-free environment that, most importantly, can feed students and keep them safe.”
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