Here’s How Universities Are Dealing with Student Hunger on Campus

Food insecurity among college students is on the rise

Left to right: Glenda Ullauri, farm educator, Dr. Tanzina Ahmed, and Cris Izaguirre, farm manager at the urban farm at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. Photo: Andrea Strong

A graduate of Kennedy-King, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, Cindy Alvarez is 42 and has five children; she is the first in her family to go to college. When she graduated in May, she was also Kennedy-King’s valedictorian.

But Alvarez was also a frequent customer and an employee at CCC’s food pantry. Regular and free access to food played a huge role in allowing her to focus on her studies.

“It was very exciting to have the ability to go to school, but at the same time it is an extra pressure on the budget,” she says. “I saw the food court and the campus restaurants, but I could not afford that. I used the food pantry like many of our adult students do because we have to go home and feed our families.”

Alvarez is not alone. A 2019 survey from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 45 percent of student respondents from over 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days.

According to a report by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness, of the college students who are food insecure, 53 percent reported missing a class, 54 percent missed a study session, 55 percent opted out of extracurricular activities, and 25 percent had to drop a class due to hunger. The report also found that 57 percent of black students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of white students.

Most solutions to food insecurity among college students focus on two areas: increasing access via food banks or pantries, food scholarships, and implementing swipe-sharing programs and benefits apps. The second involves changing underlying policy, like expanding the National School Lunch Program and adjusting eligibility for SNAP benefits.

Advocates emphasize that both lanes — food access and policy — must be pursued to mitigate the crisis. “Any effective approach has to be holistic,” says Liz Accles, director of Community Food Advocates, the nonprofit that achieved universal free lunch for all public school children in New York City.

Food pantries have expanded widely over the past five years and become an essential emergency resource to stem food insecurity. The College & University Food Bank Alliance started out with 15 schools; today, there are over 700 registered members.

The State University of New York system has worked to ensure that every campus has access to emergency food. Only half of its campuses had food pantries in 2017; now all 64 have a food pantry or a partnership in place to ensure food access for students who need it, says John Graham, associate provost for student affairs and the director of the Food Insecurity Task Force.

At City Colleges of Chicago, five of its seven schools have food banks offering fresh produce, milk, and protein, as well as shelf-stable groceries. CCC plans to add two more pantries by the end of 2019 to ensure every one of its colleges offers this resource.

“No one should have to make a choice between buying a textbook or groceries, says Jim Conwell, spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which partners with CCC to run the markets. “This gives students one less thing to worry about.”

While food pantries are an essential resource, they can be a source of stigma — if you build it, they may not come. To combat the shame, CCC calls its pantries Healthy Student Markets, which serve about 150 students and families each month — about 3,000 pounds of food per month per site. They are also need-blind, meaning any student can shop. “We want our Healthy Student Markets to be more inclusive to try to remove the stigma,” says Conwell.

A holistic model is in play at many City University of New York schools, where food pantries are adding farming into the equation. At Hostos Community College in the Bronx, the Food Studies program grows vegetables inside aeroponic gardening towers. At Bronx Community College, a food-and-garden club works on a small plot of land on campus to grow fruits and vegetables, and students learn to use that produce and prepare healthy, affordable meals.

The bellwether program is run out of Kingsborough Community College, a leafy campus that hugs the Manhattan Beach coastline in Brooklyn. Here, students have access to a suite of services, including a need-blind food pantry where any student (or graduate) can shop for themselves and their family, assistance in SNAP and WIC benefit access, and weekly $10 food vouchers for cafeteria meals.

All Kingsborough students can also shop at a free need-blind farm stand run by the college’s urban farm. The quarter-acre organic farm launched in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2011; it now grows 3,000 pounds of produce a year. Tomatoes, corn, zucchini, and beans are grown alongside callaloo, okra, and collards — crops that are particularly appealing to the community’s Caribbean community.

Despite the excitement around the farm, Tanzina Ahmed, an assistant professor of psychology at Kingsborough, continues to push for wider campus awareness and education.

“Most professors are unaware of the ways in which overall academic experience is affected by food, and the pervasiveness of these problems,” she says. To promote the programs, she meets with faculty to educate them; makes announcements in classes, posts flyers, and includes information during campus orientation.

The Carnegie Mellon University Pantry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photos: Mike Henninger, courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University opened a need-blind food pantry and created a food share program to divert leftover food waste to food-insecure students, and launched an education and outreach committee charged with educating faculty and staff on how to recognize food insecurity.

“Many people make assumptions about whether or not food insecurity exists in their community, but we want to say directly — this exists here,” says Liz Vaughan, associate dean in the Division of Student Affairs at CMU. “And it should not exist here or anywhere. We need to be forthcoming about it and bring down any level of stigma or shame, and we feel like being open and aware of this issue is a first really important step in that.”

That kind of school-wide outreach is vital, says Dominique Myles, senior director of postsecondary partnerships at OneGoal, a nonprofit that works to ensure that low-income high school students get to and through college. “A lot of systems are set up for students to raise their hand and identify that they are experiencing food insecurity. But many of them do not even realize that they are food insecure because they come from a place where there has never been enough.”

Charles Platkin, executive director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, believes technology can help move the needle. His team is working on an app to help students determine eligibility and claim SNAP benefits, connect students with peer counselors and mentors, as well as technology to convert a vending machine into a 24/7 pantry filled with nutritious meals and fresh fruits and vegetables. It will be available to food-secure students for a cost and food-insecure students for free, but both parties would simply scan a QR code, eliminating the shame factor.

Probably the most widely used tech in the food insecurity space is swipe-share programs like Swipe Out Hunger, formed in 2009 by Rachel Sumekh, then a student at UCLA. An app allows students with unused meal swipes to donate them to students in need.

When the program first rolled out, universities were dismissive. “I got a lot of ‘your program doesn’t need to exist. If a student is in crisis, they will come to dean’s office,’” recalls Sumekh. That all changed in 2017, after reports began to emerge about the extent of the food insecurity crisis, and interest in swipe-share programs skyrocketed. In 2017–2018, Swipe Out Hunger served 175,000 dining hall meals across 75 national campus partners. Sumekh expects that number to double by the end of the 2020 school year.

Students using the Swipe Out Hunger app report that it has helped them improve their health and their social lives.

“The greatest influence reported by students were feelings of inclusion,” says Sumekh. “Suddenly they can go to the dining hall with friends, whereas they used to walk back to an apartment and sit alone on their bed while others ate together. The true impact is not only the nourishment but the social belonging.”

Swipe Out Hunger has continued to meet resistance from campus food service operators, whose profits depend on those unused swipes. But students are fighting back: At Spelman and Morehouse colleges and the University of Kentucky, students went on hunger strikes when the administration refused to adopt Swipe Out Hunger. The strikes were successful — these schools have now signed on.

A food scholarship program is also making headway, run out of Houston Community College in partnership with the Houston Food Bank. Students are selected for the scholarships based on the risk of food insecurity and given a card to shop at a mobile pantry for 60 pounds of groceries every two weeks.

“Administrators review financial aid cases and do the math. They realize which students be short for food,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University sociology professor who evaluated the Houston program. “The idea here is prevention. They are saying, ‘You are not yet hungry, but you will be, so rather than allow you to fall into trouble, let’s prevent you from becoming food insecure in the first place.’”

Advocates are also working to implement legislative change. Goldrick-Rab is pushing for a federal waiver of the 20-hour SNAP work requirement for college students. These waivers are already happening on the state level — California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois all have laws that permit any Perkins-funded programs to be counted toward a work requirement. But Goldrick-Rab says this needs to expand so that college itself will be considered “work” and make any college student who meets the income limitations eligible for SNAP.

She is also pushing to expand the National School Lunch Program to college campuses, making the K-12 free- or reduced-price meal model available to community college students, where there is the most need: Goldrick-Rab says community college students account for two-thirds of food insecure students and half of all college students. She plans to pilot the program in California’s community colleges and emphasizes the role that agriculture plays in sustaining the model.

States are also passing bills modeled on the original Hunger-Free Campus Bill passed in 2017 in California, which was written with Swipe Out Hunger’s Sumekh. In its first year, it sent $7.5 million to California campuses to develop student meal credit-sharing programs, create campus food pantries, and designate employees to assist students with the benefits enrollment process. It was renewed in 2018 and 2019; New Jersey and Minnesota passed similar laws this year.

“Basic needs such as access to food shouldn’t stand in the way of a diploma,” says Sumekh. “We need administrators to recognize that you have to prepare for these students because every student deserves to feel like their campus was truly designed for them.”

Andrea Strong writes about the intersection of food, business, law, and policy. She is the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, a parent-led advocacy group working to bring holistic reform to school food in NYC. Follow her @strongbuzz @NYCSchoolFood.

Andrea Strong is a journalist who covers the intersection of food, policy, business and law. She is also the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance.

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