Skipping meals to make the grade

For first generation and poor students, getting into college is hard, but staying there can be even harder. As students are increasingly coming from lower incomes, food insecurity and homelessness are growing problems across college campuses. Groups experiencing the most food insecurity are students of color, first-generation students, and students at community colleges, according to the College and Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA).

To combat hunger, more colleges and universities are establishing food pantries and other assistance programs. Twelve of 29 of Massachusetts’ public universities have established food pantries. For example, started in 2013, UMASS Boston’s food pantry is run in a discreet corner of their Student Center where enrollees are free to take their weekly share during staggered appointments.

One hundred other colleges and universities around the country have started their own food pantries. New York University is starting a food voucher program that allows students six free meals a semester. Students at Columbia have developed an app called Swipes that connects students with extra swipes on their meal plans with classmates that need them.

More students from low-income families are enrolling in college to empower themselves financially, while the price of a college education has skyrocketed. According to the Boston Globe, “wages have stagnated, costs of other goods and services have risen, and the 2008-2009 recession left many parents struggling to help pay for their children’s education.” For example, Elizabeth Dennis, a senior at UMASS Boston, took a semester off college to work as a cashier. She says,“I don’t want to be doing the kind of work I’d have to do without a degree.”

A student at the University of California Berkeley said on the PBS News Hour, “I, like many folks, come to college to get out of poverty. I really thought that was the end of the line when we got the admission letter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.” Poor students do not stop being poor when they reach their college or university. Financial aid may cover tuition and books, but does not pay for rent or food. As a result, some students are sleeping in their cars (or someone else’s) and skipping meals to cut down on the cost of living.

Instead of concentrating on lectures or homework, some students are worried about their next meal or how they will pay their utility bill. Ruben Canedo, a first-generation graduate from UC Berkeley and advocate for food security, says, “We definitely have students that said, you know what, at this moment, I can’t do this. And they left,” according to the PBS News Hour.

There are 311 institutions in the CUFBA. Established in 2011, CUFBA’s mission is to “To alleviate the barriers and challenges associated with food insecurity and hunger so that college and university students can remain in school, and ultimately, earn their degrees.”

The organization, in partnership with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, Student Government Resource Center, and Student Public Interest Research, conducted a study on the prevalence of hunger on campuses. Of the study’s 3,765 students, from 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities, 48% reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous thirty days.

Here are the highlights of the study, provided by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness:

  • Twenty-five percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security, compared to 20 percent at four-year schools.
  • Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color. Fully 57 percent of Black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students.
  • More than half of all first-generation students (56 percent) were food insecure, compared to 45 percent of students who had at least one parent who attended college.

Photograph: The food pantry at Brookhaven College, a community college in Dallas. Image source: Brookhaven College website.

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