Food Insecurity: Colleges Step Up When Federal Funds, Social Programs Fall Short

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As the cost of attending college continues to rise and financial aid programs are struggling to keep up, the jobs of the financial aid office and the institution are far from over — at least that’s the philosophy behind Houston Community College’s (HCC) new food scholarship program, and other institutions across the nation.

After discovering that food donations helped a majority of its students after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, the financial aid office at HCC has been working to offer thousands of low-income students fresh produce, meat, and canned goods through a partnership with the Houston Food Bank, and debuted its first farmers market-like pickup for needy students last month.

“Many of us are volunteering, and you can physically see how grateful they are for the help,” HCC Executive Director of Financial Aid JoEllen Soucier said.

Additionally, a host of financial coaches are constantly reaching out to students to let them know about the program through text messages and emails, and making sure that the initiative is targeting those who need the help the most.

But it doesn't stop there. Researchers from Temple University and the University of Houston are surveying the students benefiting from this program as part of a study to determine if, and to what extent, such initiviates help students remain in school.   

“The basis of this study has been that support for food stops at K-12 — there’s nothing when you get to college,” said Shar-day Campbell, communications and social media coordinator in the financial aid office at HCC. “When you have to worry about a basic need… it’s definitely a diversion of focus from your schoolwork.”

The data on students not being able to afford to eat enough in college is already evident — especially at the community college level. In the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s most recent report, “Still Hungry and Homeless in College,” researchers found that 42 percent of community college students said they were food-insecure within the last 30 days of taking the survey, and just under one-third said they skipped a meal within the last 30 days because they did not have enough money.   

This phenomenon can be attributed to the sticker price of colleges and universities rising at a much faster rate than spending on financial aid, exacerbated by the fact that a new demographic of students with new needs, known as nontraditional learners, have been entering into higher education, according to Clare Cady, the the director of the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), an organization that helps college campuses partner with food banks and create other food-related programs.

“The cost of college is going up, and our financial aid has not kept pace. That is the fault of policymakers, who are cutting financial aid and restricting it as more people who need financial aid are going to college,” Cady said. “Our systems and our practices need to be realigned with the needs of the demographics we are serving.”

The purchasing power of the Pell Grant program has declined in recent years, from covering 75 percent of the costs of attending a public, four-year college 40 years ago to covering less than 30 percent today. Additionally, another report from the HOPE Lab found in a 2017 survey that even those who do not qualify for aid — oftentimes adult learners or nontraditional students — struggle with food insecurity because they are unable to access social programs.

“Higher education policy offers financial aid as the first — and often the only — line of defense to help students with food and housing expenses. But only half of students in this study who lacked sufficient food or housing received a federal Pell Grant, and almost 40 percent did not receive any grant aid at all,” according to the study’s authors. “ In contrast, more than half were working—with just under one-third receiving grant aid and working, and nonetheless experiencing material hardship.”

While there are public programs that were designed to help low-income adults with food insecurity, many students don’t qualify. For example, undergraduates without children must usually work at least 20 hours a week to benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which, according to the HOPE lab, is a difficult ask of students and “it is therefore unsurprising that in this sample, less than 30 percent of food-insecure community college students receive food stamps and only 4 percent received cash assistance.”

And although new research, such as the HOPE study, has brought this issue to the forefront of the discussion on college access and affordability, and a handful of bills have recently been introduced to address food-insecure students, Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), said it is going to be tough to pass legislation related to expanding social programs in this political climate, especially those involving students, as House Republicans are hyper-focused on workforce opportunities as opposed to developments within the education system.

One bill, Rep. Al Lawson’s (D-FL) College Student Hunger Act of 2017, would expand SNAP benefits to the neediest students who do not currently qualify for the program for a variety of reasons, such as those who receive the maximum Pell Grant award. The bill was introduced in the House in September 2017, and referred to subcommittees on Agriculture and Nutrition.

That is where college initiatives come in. In fact, the HOPE study found that more than one-quarter of food-insecure students rely on receiving free food from pantries on and off campus. Since its start six years ago, CUFBA has grown from just a dozen members to more than 600 today. Its members range from community colleges, such as Owens Community College in Ohio, to large and small public state universities, such as Georgia State University, to private institutions, such as Mercy College in New York.

One of CUFBA’s co-founders, Michigan State University (MSU), created the first food assistance initiative 25 years ago, when students and staff partnered with their local food bank to purchase food at a discounted price to give out to students for free on campus. MSU serves over 4,000 undergraduates, graduates, and their families annually, and operates on charitable donations.  

HCC’s efforts, however, are unique in that it will provide social scientists with the first opportunity to assess such a program with “high academic rigor,” according to Cady. And if the findings of the study are good, Duke-Benfield explained, HCC can make the case for both programmatic interventions, such as increasing access to food banks, and, coupled with other research, inform more systematic, policy responses such as increasing financial aid and lessening students’ unmet need.   

“One of the most important things that we can get our hands on right now is good research,” Duke-Benfield said.

Originally published on nasfaa.org on April 25, 2018. Article available here.