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The New Food Fight

September 2018

By Karla Hignite

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Campuses are taking aim at the growing problem of student hunger while using creative funding methods to provide help.

Too many.

That’s how many students on college campuses today worry on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis about food—specifically, when or what they might eat next. While still largely in its nascent stage, a growing body of research has emerged during the past decade across the higher education sector attempting not only to quantify the scope of food insecurity among students, but also to begin to measure the impacts of this phenomenon on retention and academic performance, and the likely long-term effects on society and the economy. 

At a more granular level, individual institutions and state systems of higher education are likewise directly canvassing their student populations to get clarity on the extent of the problem within their reach. According to a 2017 assessment conducted by Portland Community College, Ore., upwards of 60 percent of PCC students have experienced food insecurity at some point while being enrolled. While the percentage of those falling into the extreme insecurity category of daily concerns surrounding food access was less than 10 percent, essentially half of PCC students said that they experienced anxiety related to food availability on a weekly or monthly basis, notes Diane Shingledecker, PCC’s community-based learning faculty coordinator in career and technical education. 

A January 2018 California State University Study of Student Basic Needs revealed that 43.7 percent of Fresno State students surveyed reported food insecurity, compared to 41.6 percent on average across all 23 CSU institutions. 

At St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., 15 percent of the 504 students who responded to a recent pilot survey indicated that in the past 12 months, they often or always went hungry because of a lack of money. Data from this survey—designed by a committee of faculty, students, and administrators—provide information that will point to adjustments needed to better link students’ specific needs with appropriate resources.

Suffice to say, there remains plenty of need for a deeper dive on the nuances that define, the factors that influence, and the challenges that stem from student hunger on campus. 

What Has Changed

Food insecurity among college students is not new, says Kathryn Hutchinson, vice president for student affairs at St. John’s. It has been on the radar of student affairs professionals and others who are part of the student caretaking team on campuses for years, she adds. Yet, the prevalence of students today whose basic needs for healthy food and secure shelter remain in question has many educators freshly alarmed and taking action. 

“It’s a positive step that this issue is receiving widespread attention and that greater awareness about food insecurity is being brought to the campus community,” says Hutchinson. “Hopefully, this will result in increases in resources for those on campuses who have been working on these issues all along.”

Clare Cady, director of College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), concurs. She says that the issue as a topic of discussion began gaining prominence about five years ago. Her own hypothesis: Toward the end of the Great Recession, middle-class families across the board—including white middle-class families—began realizing the cumulative impacts of multiple years of sustained economic stress. Hunger was no longer a reality only for those fitting the technical or stereotypical definitions of poor, suggests Cady. Coinciding with an expanding student services focus on food assistance programs, greater attention to research studies to better understand the underlying causes of food insecurity likewise brought more media scrutiny and helped drive the conversation into the mainstream. 

Some factors named as contributing to the hunger crisis among college students aren’t terribly surprising. While many are inclined to blame rising tuition and course material costs as a primary culprit, that doesn’t begin to take into account the myriad factors that have caused tuitions to rise—most notably, state appropriations for higher education that have in many cases plummeted during the past decade, leaving a much higher burden on families and institutions to make up the difference in financing a college education. Not to be ignored is the steady erosion of a range of social supports such as federal food assistance coupled with wage stagnation, higher costs of living, and increased health-care costs that have left families financially squeezed and less able to contribute to a son’s or daughter’s education. 

Changing student demographics are likewise a contributor. Increasingly, the traditional student is being replaced by individuals likely to be a bit older, probably working at least part time, perhaps with families of their own to support, and sometimes, with the reverse challenge of financially assisting a parent. The widening income divide spreading across the nation means lower-income students will continue to comprise a growing share of those seeking opportunities to achieve advanced degrees and credentials. All this suggests that issues related to food insecurity will not only remain, but likely increase on the current trajectory. 

Ironically, at the same time that fewer today can afford college, every news cycle related to the job market and economy sends a clear message that more highly skilled workers are in demand. Especially for those with advanced degrees and credentials, more opportunities are emerging for decent-paying jobs. Yet, when individuals must choose between paying for college and putting food on the table, this adds one more reason to either drop out or not enroll in the first place. 

For those in the midst of their studies, research suggests academic success can suffer on multiple levels when students are hungry, homeless, or both. The strain likewise takes a toll on physical and mental health, including more missed days of school and work. Because real college life on a daily basis for too many students is overshadowed by anxiety about whether they will eat and where they might sleep, a robust student services focus for more institutions today includes helping students meet their basic needs so that they can stay in school and remain focused on their studies. 

Direct Response

During the past decade, PCC has adopted a multifaceted approach to assisting students who lack reliable access to food, but the most direct way has been through its campus-based food pantries. The college opened its first pantry on its Rock Creek campus in 2008, followed the next year with pantries on PCC’s three other campuses. An extremely active student government—Associated Students of Portland Community College (ASPCC)—has been instrumental in the launch and operation of the pantries, says Stephen Arthur, manager of student life for PCC’s Sylvania Campus. 

Initially, the pantries were kept stocked largely through direct donations and additional fundraisers. Students could access their campus pantry three times per term and collect a bag of items equivalent to about 12 meals, says Arthur. 

Pantry services have evolved dramatically since ASPCC enacted a student-approved activities fee two years ago to boost pantry funding. The fee of 20 cents per credit hour helped raise $155,000 this past academic year alone, says Arthur. That has allowed for a consistent level of funding for each pantry to cover operational expenses, student personnel costs, and to round out the purchase of additional supplies and seed an $80,000 emergency grants fund to help students in urgent need. All four campus pantries can now also offer regular shopping hours with once-weekly access for students. 

Donations remain a core component of PCC’s pantry success. One key partner is the Oregon Food Bank. The college is also in negotiation with local grocers to enable PCC’s pantries to more consistently offer personal hygiene products with donated and reduced-cost items. And, in a creative win-win for students’ pockets and pantry shelves is a partnership with the college library whereby students can donate nonperishable items to get reductions on library fines. 

“We are still evolving this program, which we’ve set up as a tiered system,” says Arthur. For instance, a donated can of corn could reduce your fines by $3, whereas a jar of peanut butter may yield $10 off your tab, explains Arthur. A similar partnership is being explored to trade food donations for reduced parking fines. 

On-Demand Aid

In November 2014, Fresno State launched its Student Cupboard as one component of its Food Security Project. Within the first month of opening, the pantry served 198 visitors. 

On average today, the pantry receives about 4,600 visits per month during the academic year, and over the course of nearly four years, 11,300 unique users have stopped in at least once, says Jessica Medina, Food Security Project coordinator. While fewer visits occur during summer months, the Student Cupboard remains open 30 hours per week year-round. Students can access the pantry once each day, choosing among a variety of food items to fill their basket and having their items bagged at checkout. 

The pantry started its own garden on campus and for more than a year, has been adding fruits and vegetables grown and harvested on campus in addition to collecting or purchasing fresh foods off site. “While many of the other items in our pantry have a limit of one per visit, we don’t limit produce—in part because of their short shelf life and because we want to add to the healthy options students choose,” says Medina.

On average, students who access the pantry visit three times per month. “For these occasional users, this resource is more of a bridge to get them through,” explains Alicia Nelson, Fresno State’s director of wellness services. She spends between 30 percent and 40 percent of her time directly related to the university’s food security initiatives. “For students with a sustained high frequency of visits, we reach out to see if we can provide additional resources and connections.” 

Testing Solutions

In addition to its pantries, PCC has likewise been testing other ways to provide affordable eating options for students. Two campuses now have learning gardens where students can volunteer and leave their shift with fresh produce in hand. The college also has a $5 meal voucher program for use in campus cafes that is widely advertised across each campus and within each food pantry. According to Shingledecker, recent grant funding will provide for an additional 5,000 food vouchers (1,250 for each campus) this coming year. 

Aligned with the vouchers is a new grab-and-go express meal option of healthy entrees for $5 or less available through campus food services that will launch as a pilot program at two campuses during the 2019 winter and spring terms. “We all want and need to eat healthier,” says Shingledecker. “This express entrée option will be open to everyone on campus and will appeal as much to some of our faculty and staff who are also looking for lower-cost options.” 

PCC is also exploring ways to provide a “teaching kitchen” that would offer the space and equipment for students to make their own meals, since the challenge of eating healthy on a fixed budget may have as much to do with opportunities to prepare your own food, says Shingledecker.

Deb Lippoldt, Foods & Nutrition department chair for PCC’s Sylvania Campus, suggests going one step further to make nutrition and food procurement and preparation part of the required curriculum, similar to the way more colleges and universities have recognized the need to teach students basic skills around budgeting and financial management. “Teaching resilience skills is an important part of a student’s education,” she says. 

Teaching Resilience

Nurturing resilience in students may include helping them learn to advocate for themselves, adds Cady. “Normalizing a help-seeking environment that eliminates a sense of shame should be a priority for institutions.” While the National School Lunch Program has for years provided nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free meals to children in elementary and secondary public and nonprofit private schools, once students graduate from high school, they are essentially on their own, notes Cady. 

During the 2015–2016 academic year, CUFBA broadened its scope to assist college campuses with addressing deeper-level needs of students, including efforts to help students apply for food assistance programs such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offering nutrition assistance to eligible low-income individuals and families.

PCC is among a growing list of higher education institutions helping students secure and maintain assistance through SNAP and other state and federal programs offering grants and subsidies for child care, health care, and housing. This has required training faculty, student advocates, and front-line staff on how to help students apply, since the application process is one more thing students often don’t make time for on their own, notes Dee Wilson, PCC bursar.  

In fact, PCC is doubling down on that effort, leading a consortium of 14 colleges in the statewide STEP (SNAP Training and Employment Program) project that increases tuition, transportation resources, and coaching support for SNAP recipients to further eliminate obstacles toward completion of their credentials and a good-paying job. PCC’s president and other college leaders are working closely with Oregon’s Department of Human Services to inform policymakers of the financial burdens for many college students and the need to ease the program’s work requirements so that students can maintain eligibility while in school. 

“Our ultimate goal is to remove any barriers to student success—including food challenges—to help students progress and graduate so that they can, in fact, move on to better employment prospects and out of the loop of being food insecure,” says Shingledecker. 

Linking students with additional food assistance is likewise a priority for Fresno State. “From the beginning, the university’s first lady has been one of the Food Security Project’s biggest advocates, wanting programs to be easy for students to use—no different than other available services on campus, like the student health center or career services,” notes Medina. That ease of use includes encouraging student sign-up for services such as CalFresh, the state’s version of SNAP. Application assistance is available in the Student Cupboard and in locations across campus, with individuals who are trained to help students apply, says Medina.

Tracking Hunger Trends 

With PCC’s various food assistance programs in place, college leadership is tracking use to determine their effectiveness, says Arthur. For instance, pantry use tends to increase toward the end of a month or term. That makes sense given that students may feel more financial pressure to meet their next month’s rent, or that financial aid resources may be running low by that point, says Arthur. “We also know that there are some who access the meal vouchers but not food bags, and vice versa. Is the pantry better for those who have dietary restrictions or preferences such as a vegetarian or vegan diet? Ultimately we want to try to meet students’ needs with what works best for them.”

Ideally, collecting data on pantry and voucher use would extend beyond the number of discrete users and frequency to determine how these translate into student success. The latter is a tall order, admits PCC’s Wilson. For instance, how can you determine whether students who are using these services are staying in school because they have this additional lifeline? “If use goes up, is that because the need is growing, or because awareness is rising and the stigma often associated with accepting assistance is going down as students learn to advocate for themselves?” asks Wilson. “We’re still struggling with how to quantify the impacts of these programs on student success and retention, but we believe that there is a connection.” 

As part of its data-collection efforts to quantify overall pantry use and frequency of visits, Fresno State students do swipe their student ID cards upon checkout, says Medina. Although total student visits to the Student Cupboard are tracked, no demographic data are collected other than the retention status and academic standing of those who visit. “Our hope with collecting these data points is to be able to assess over time any correlation between these support services and student retention and completion,” notes Medina. More recently, the Student Cupboard started tracking the number of items per visitor since this might also indicate level of need, says Nelson. 

Show Support

Medina asserts that Fresno State’s Food Security Project has been successful because of the robust collaboration and partnership surrounding its initiatives. Initial funding to launch the Student Cupboard came through the president’s Circle for Excellence funds—providing donor funding for startup programs. That seeded the pantry through its first 18 months. Since then, donor funding from community partners has largely sustained the program. 

An annual March Match Up development campaign that began in 2016 has raised matching funds to total an excess of $440,000 during the past three years. This covers funding for food purchases, hygiene items, student assistants, and general operating costs. Medina also works directly with the local community food bank and with growers and producers to maximize the value of donation dollars.

“Our program costs around $100,000 per year to run with our current initiatives,” says Nelson. Other than Medina’s full-time coordinator position, which is funded through the campus budget, Fresno State’s program is 100 percent funded through donor contributions, community partnerships, community and campus support, and a CalFresh grant. Doing some quick math, that $100,000 stretched across Fresno State’s 25,000 students suggests an approximate cost of $4 per enrolled student to provide these programs, notes Nelson. “That’s obviously not a perfect estimate, but as institutions consider how to make similar programs scalable for their campuses, it can provide a starting point to assess cost and return on investment,” suggests Nelson. She argues that in whatever manner you fund your initiatives, partners across the institution must be willing to provide strong support to make your program effective. 

For Fresno State, auxiliary services partnered with campus technology services to create and launch the university’s Catered Cupboard text alert app, and staff are available to answer calls and push notifications. “Dining services donates up to one meal swipe per student per semester at no cost to us—estimated at $4,500 per year—and donates all food truck vendor fees back to the Student Cupboard,” says Medina. 

Academic affairs grants Medina class time for presentations about Food Security Project services, and the university’s advancement and communications offices help share students’ stories and assist with fundraising and donor relations, especially in connection with the annual March Match Up campaign, says Medina. Perhaps the ultimate nod of appreciation has come from students. This past spring, graduating seniors donated $6,400 to the Student Cupboard in a show of support to their fellow students.

Get Started

While campuses interested in starting a food pantry or other food-assistance initiatives will want to research best practices and programs, that doesn’t substitute for identifying the particular initiatives that will work best for your students and fit your campus culture, notes Medina. “So that you put resources to their best use, find out what students need by asking them directly.” 

Medina conducted frequent focus groups with students prior to and following the launch of the Student Cupboard and routinely talks with students in and out of the classroom. “Because we have a number of students who are parents of young children, we started providing diapers, wipes, baby food, and formula whenever available,” says Medina. Students can also pick up once each month a hygiene pack containing deodorant, soap, and other essentials—another need identified based on input from students. 

Medina’s other advice: Get started. “Don’t wait until you can do something big. We launched our pantry in a hallway loading dock with five shelves and a refrigerator. It wasn’t ideal, but if we had waited, we wouldn’t have helped those first 198 students.” Today the Student Cupboard looks like a small grocery store, with plenty of shelving and two three-door refrigerators and a three-door freezer. That’s not to suggest that the goal is to grow your operation, says Medina. “We have grown based on need, but our focus is to eventually decrease that need. Our entire program was created to help remove barriers to filling basic needs so that students can focus on academics without one more layer of financial stress.”

Change Reality

Skeptics argue that the food assistance provided by colleges and universities is nothing but a mere Band-Aid at best. Many of those who are passionately involved in the fight against student hunger agree. “Food security is attained only when individuals have the economic means to access healthful, culturally appropriate foods through socially acceptable means,” says Lippoldt. “By definition, food charity does not make anyone food secure, it only addresses hunger in the immediate situation.” 

Ultimately, institutions need to move away from trying to address food insecurity through donated foods and move toward raising awareness about reaching food security and poverty reduction, argues Lippoldt. In part, colleges and universities can help achieve this by emphasizing livable wage work, requiring that academic programs demonstrate the capacity to lead to living wage employment, says Lippoldt. “That’s not to suggest that campuses should not or don’t also need to respond with food assistance now,” she adds.

 In the near term, pantries and meal voucher programs can provide immediate relief to students. Institutions can also examine ways to subsidize their food service so that meal options are more affordable. From an advocacy standpoint, institutions can lend their voice to those calling for a national school meal program in postsecondary education similar to the free and reduced meal programs in primary education, suggests Lippoldlt. 

“This is an important conversation,” says Cady. “On the one hand, we need to provide direct services today, because students needed food yesterday. We also need to figure out how to address the underlying issues that lead to food insecurity among students.” This is a truly wicked problem because the layers of complexity make it seem unsolvable, says Cady. Lasting solutions will require a cultural shift, policy change, and an evolution in how institutions respond to students, argues Cady. 

Regarding the latter, leaders need to reimagine what it means to be a student and embrace new concepts of what students’ lives are actually like today, argues Cady. “The traditional student of a generation ago is no longer the norm.” That’s all the more reason that the higher education sector needs more data and evidence and the ongoing narrative of students caught in this challenge, says Cady. 

And faculty, staff, and administrators need to actually listen. “Foremost, you need to believe your students when they tell you that they are hungry,” says Arthur. He believes a lot of unconscious bias exists surrounding those who are food insecure. “Some will argue that if students budgeted differently and spent their money wisely, these programs would be unnecessary, but that’s simply not the case for the vast majority of students seeking help.” 

Find the Right Match

At St. John’s where Hutchinson has worked for more than 11 years, responding to students’ food and housing challenges is a joint effort between the office of mission and campus ministry and the division of student affairs. “We have an assessment process where we ask some basic questions to determine what is really happening with a student. Is this an ongoing need, or short term? Is it an immediate point of stress such as fixing a flat tire that required scarce resources to be redirected, resulting in less to spend for food? Or is it a recent increase in medical costs that will add to monthly expenses indefinitely and therefore impact the student’s level of food security for an extended period of time?” Those are important variables when trying to determine the best way to assist a student, notes Hutchinson.

Staff members who conduct these initial assessments are granted broad authority to dispense financial assistance on the spot for urgent concerns. “Knowing more about the issue at hand might allow us to then repackage financial aid going forward in a way that frees up additional resources for daily living,” says Hutchinson. For students, these conversations also shed light on services available to them to encourage help-seeking behaviors on their part so that they don’t feel hopeless or alone, she adds.

Aside from 3,500 residential students, the majority of the university’s 20,000-plus students don’t live on campus. Many do live within a mile or two, though not necessarily at home. “We consider these our resident commuters, and very often they find the expense of city living more than they had planned for,” says Hutchinson. St. John’s does not have a food pantry on campus. “We’ve thought and talked about this, but the fact that we have strong ties with local churches and community organizations allows us to link students to food banks and other existing resources in the immediate area.” A bigger concern expressed by students has been for meal options while on campus, notes Hutchinson. 

That might mean providing a modified meal plan with a certain number of meal swipes. “For example, on the three days a student is on campus, he or she might eat breakfast and dinner. Or maybe the student eats lunch and then uses some dining dollars that we provide to pick up something from our campus convenience store,” says Hutchinson. “Once we determine a student’s need, we can find a solution. We look at each situation as a separate case and determine the level of assistance needed.”

In the broader context, students’ basic needs must be met if we expect them to be successful and persist through graduation, says Hutchinson. “If students can’t focus in the classroom, their situational anxiety can snowball. And, if resources to manage students’ emergency needs are not put into place in time, they may leave school for the semester, and then they might never come back—and too often, for an issue or situation that was short term and where solutions could have been found,” notes Hutchinson. “As educators, we must commit to do whatever is in our power to help students stay on course. If that’s alleviating student hunger, then we need to continue to be creative and find a way to make an impact.” 

KARLA HIGNITE, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

Related Topics

On average today, the pantry at Fresno State receives about 4,600 visits per month during the academic year.

“Our ultimate goal is to remove any barriers to student success—including food challenges—to help students progress and graduate so that they can move on to better employment prospects.”

—Diane Shingledecker, Portland Community College

At Fresno State, students can also pick up once each month a hygiene pack containing deodorant, soap, and other essentials—another need identified based on input from students.

“Knowing more about the issue at hand might allow us to then repackage financial aid going forward in a way that frees up additional resources for daily living.”

—Kathryn Hutchinson, St. John’s University