Food for Thought
Advocates Step Up Fight Against Student Hunger
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Sara Goldrick-Rab stood on a stage in front of a large audience of community college educators and could scarcely believe the words that were coming out of her mouth.
“It’s stunning to find myself talking about this,” said Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the University of Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
“This,” in Goldrick-Rab’s telling, is hunger, euphemistically called “food insecurity,” meaning that many community college students — who characteristically occupy the lowest rungs of the country’s economic ladder — are going to bed, or class, hungry.
The setting for Goldrick-Rab’s remarks was the 2018 Innovations Conference, the signature event of the League for Innovation in the Community College. The event, according to the league’s own description, “is the foremost convening for community college professionals, fostering innovation in teaching and learning and enhancing the higher education experience.”
The conference gives participants access to “the most inventive and inspirational community college programs from around the world.” It’s designed to provide real-world examples of how student success can be improved.
But can any of those innovations work at all if large swaths of students struggle to put food on the table? Goldrick-Rab emphatically says no, invoking psychologist Abraham Maslow’s five-tier pyramid of human needs.
To succeed, she said, “you need to feel secure. You need food and water. Once you have those, you can move up that pyramid.”
That student hunger and food insecurity are on the rise is beyond dispute.
Free food pantries are becoming commonplace on college campuses.
More than 570 campus food pantries nationwide are registered with the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which formed in 2012 and helps colleges set up food pantries and other hunger programs. New York recently required that they be established at all institutions in its state university system.
“You can’t concentrate when you’re hungry; you’re irritable, you’re not focusing. I did not perform well on some exams,” 47-year-old Manhattan Community College student Melanie Aucello told the Associated Press.
Goldrick-Rab has been at the forefront of fighting hunger on campus. She is the lead author of a recent report compiled and published by HOPE (Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education) lab, which she founded while working at the University of Wisconsin. The report found that 36 percent of 43,000 two-year and four-year college students who were surveyed in 20 states had trouble getting enough to eat, threatening the academic success that’s critical to entering the middle class.
Among community college students alone, 42 percent struggled to pay for balanced meals.
“We see food-insecure students devote as much time to school and homework as other students, but they also work longer hours and get less sleep,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab.
A convergence of economic and societal factors is fueling the rise of hunger on college campuses. College prices are higher than they have ever been. Family incomes have been stagnant for decades. The social safety net is in tatters. Community colleges are vastly underfunded. Welfare reform, put in place in 1996, requires most recipients of cash assistance or food stamps to work. Going to college doesn’t count.
“It’s the new economics of college,” Goldrick-Rab said.
`There is no typical student who’s food insecure; it can impact any type of student,” said Clare Cady, a Temple University official who is co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
Food pantries cost little to colleges because they’re typically run by volunteer students and faculty and are supported by donations of food and money.
The student-run Michigan State University Student Food Bank, launched in 1993, was the first. It buys food from a regional food bank and distributes it to more than 4,000 students and their families per year.
In California, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 signed a law allocating $7.5 million to fight campus hunger — not only for pantries, but also for other approaches, such as helping with access to public benefits programs.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said an initiative launched this spring makes New York the first state to require food pantries to be established at all institutions in the state universty system. About 70 percent already had them.
At Schenectady County Community College, any student, regardless of income, can visit up to three times a month and select three days’ worth of food such as canned beans, tuna, spaghetti sauce and pasta.
“It helps immensely because it’s really difficult trying to balance school and finances, and it’s difficult to work to have money for groceries while in school,” said 22-year-old biology major Hannah Daignault.
“We have a lot of students who are low-income working parents or single people struggling to get by,” said Robyn King, a college counselor who coordinates the pantry. “Some receive food stamp benefits, but some make a little too much to qualify. We try to fill the gap.”
Numerous colleges have launched their own initiatives to combat hunger on campus. Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y, seeks to provide a path to longer-term solutions. Its food wagon distributes free granola bars with labels directing students to the food pantry and Single
Stop, an organization that helps students apply for government benefits such as food stamps, housing and childcare.
“The traditional student today is older with other obligations,” said Monroe president Anne Kress. “A lot of them are living in a very narrow margin between financial security and insecurity. What’s going to connect them to financial security is a college degree.”
Houston Community College has partnered with the Houston Food Bank’s Food for Change Program to create food scholarships, allowing students to get up to 60 pounds of free groceries every two weeks. The groceries available include seasonal produce, frozen meat, dry goods and some canned goods.
The scholarships were created after a poll found that 88 percent of students indicated that food giveaways helped them focus more on their studies. Food insecurity seriously undermines student success.
The HOPE report puts it this way: “Working longer hours and dealing with insufficient food and housing was associated with lower grades in college. Sizable fractions of students who were doing very poorly in college, getting grades below the C average typically required for maintaining financial aid and avoiding academic probation, were dealing with food and/or housing insecurity. For example, among students who reported receiving D’s and F’s in college, more than half were food insecure, with more than 40 percent at the very lowest level of food security.”
Community colleges are being asked to take on a monumental task in addressing food insecurity.
“You are being asked to address a huge systemic problem,” Goldrock-Rab said. “I want you to think beyond food pantries. Prevention is the key.”
Among the first things colleges should do is gather data on the extent of food insecurity on their campus. There is no federal data on the problem. It’s up to colleges to collect the information themselves, and take action themselves.
“We have to make these students visible,” Goldrick-Rab said. “We value what we count.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.