By Bernie Beaudreau
I recently moderated a panel discussion at Middlesex Community College with four college student affairs professionals who are trying to address hunger among college students. There were about 30 student leaders and student affairs professionals from a network of Connecticut and Rhode Island colleges in attendance. The panel was coordinated by Campus Compact, a nationwide organization devoted to improving civic engagement and student life.
Connecticut Food Bank Member Services Director Maria Markham has been discussing this issue of hunger among college students across the state since last summer. The session gave me new perspective on this growing concern in higher education: that many college students, stressed with high costs of tuition, housing, health care and food, are going hungry.
Jessica Hernandez, MSW, from Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), told us of the challenge in launching their student food pantry. They surveyed 350 of their students and discovered 62 students who self-identified as homeless, living out of their cars, couch surfing or crashing the dorms for a night’s sleep. Jessica described CCSU students as typically working one or two jobs and raising a family on low incomes. The survey also indicated that 37 percent their students responded that they had experienced hunger in the previous month. After struggling with the College’s liability concerns, Jessica was finally able to open a food pantry this month in a space offered by Campus Ministries.
At Norwalk Community College (NCC), Cortney Anstett, M.S., organized their campus food pantry three years ago. They have 382 students who receive food on a weekly basis. Their VISTA volunteer, Lenisha Nathaniel, told us she spends 35 hours weekly clipping and organizing coupons collected by faculty and staff. She can stretch the small budget they have for stocking the student food pantry, “but it takes a lot of work.” They welcome the help they get from Community Plates (now Food Rescue U.S.), which engages volunteers to pick up donated food from supermarkets and bring it to food pantries, including NCC’s. Lenisha also picks up fruits and vegetables from several area stores, which they put out on a “grab ’n go” table in the Student Union.
During this panel discussion, I heard stories about students reaching desperation points, being hungry and becoming unstable, missing classes and seeing their grades fall. The irony is that the student aid office will cut financial awards based on performance criteria just when debilitating financial hardships are at their worst. In some cases, the financial aid office on campus will reconsider upon appeal, but food insecure, struggling students need advocates to help them through the process. One student told the story of a fellow student who was repeatedly asked to prove that she “was really in need” by the financial aid office.
I learned that across the country, increasing numbers of college campuses are organizing food pantries to address college hunger. The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), has more than 400 member colleges and universities. In October 2016, CUFBA released a report on its survey of 3,765 students from 34 institutions in 12 states. They found that 48 percent of the students reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security (experiencing hunger).
At Middlesex Community College, Professor Judith Felton discovered the need for food assistance for students last winter. By the summer, she had worked with others to get a decommissioned bus set up at the end of the parking lot for a student pantry. I visited it last October and found it was well organized and welcoming to the students who had begun to seek help. They call it the “Magic Food Bus” adding a little intrigue to experience. This winter, the pantry was moved indoors temporarily as the bus is not heated.
I left the conference wondering how the Connecticut Food Bank might do more to help address this need among college students. It could involve adding new stops for our Mobile Pantry on college campuses or at least connecting campus pantries to our distribution services. We have more work to do in helping colleges and universities meet this need.
Thanks to Campus Compact Connecticut for convening this important conversation and helping us explore solutions that build stronger communities. For more information about the Campus Compact in Connecticut and their wide ranging work on civic engagement and social responsibility, visit www.ct.compact.org. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.