Some college students don’t know where their next meal will come from

By Leigh Guidry

How can students focus on school when they’re worried about their next meal?

Food banks on college or university campuses may not be intuitive, but more and more are finding them necessary.

Free and reduced lunch programs have been part of an ongoing effort to ensure children aren’t going hungry during the school day, but as students go on to college, those safety nets disappear and students are left wondering when they will eat again.

It might be a student depending on a work-study paycheck to make it through the month, or a student who is also a parent, or an international student without access to a vehicle or groceries.

Maybe an unexpected expense came up and what’s left has to either pay for rent or food.

“All of those situations can make it really difficult to afford food,” said Melanie McGuire, chief impact officer for Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves parishes across Louisiana.

That struggle is called food insecurity — the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. And it’s one nearly half of America’s college students experience, according to the 2016 Hunger on Campus report.

By the numbers

Forty-eight percent of students polled reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry, according to the report from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness.

“There is an abundance of food in this country,” McGuire said. “The idea that a student with so many other competing priorities does not have access to food is not acceptable.”

The number of food-insecure students is higher for community colleges, which tend to serve older students who often are supporting families.

To combat this issue, more than 500 colleges across the country have started on-campus food pantries, according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

Louisiana schools are no exception, with at least four already established and more on the way.

“Regardless of the circumstance, no students should have to choose between food and other basic needs,” reads the description on Louisiana State University’s Food Pantry website. “The Food Pantry exists to help ease that choice and provide support.”

Louisiana campus food pantries in the Alliance:

  • Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge: LSU Food Pantry
  • Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond: Southeastern Food Pantry
  • Delgado Community College, New Orleans: Care Corner
  • Northwestern State University, Natchitoches: NSU Food Pantry

The pantries at LSU and Southeastern in Hammond are well-established, and other schools have looked to them in starting their own. 

“Food insecurity is aprevalent, but mostly unaddressed issue on college campuses nationwide, including at LSU,” according to the school’s food pantry website.

“Some students may experience situational hunger or food insecurity while others may demonstrate chronic hunger or insecurity and need for continued support.”

Northwestern State opened its food pantry in spring 2015, originally as the capstone project of three students in a course called Social Work with Communities and Organizations.

Louisiana Tech has the “The Good Nutrition Mission” food pantry, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is working on creating its own pantries now.

“Food insecurity affects more students than one would initially think, but it’s a fairly silent group so others need to advocate for them,” said Ben Rice, student government president at Tech.

The organization is hosting a food drive as winter quarter wraps up, encouraging students to use leftover money on their meal plan to buy food for the pantry, Rice said.

Pearson Cross, associate dean of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s College of Liberal Arts, hopes to have the university’s pantry up and running by the fall semester.

In the meantime

Second Harvest Food Bank is stepping in by offering its pantry to UL Lafayette students about a half-mile from campus. 

The pantry is open to those with a valid student ID on the last Saturday of the month. It consists primarily of donated products, so there are no income requirements to access them, McGuire said.

It’s offered late in the month when budgets often are tight for many people, she said.

It’s not the only market Second Harvest operates in the area. They have several mobile pantries as well as established pantries within different organizations.

Students and others can call 232-HELP to get a list of locations, McGuire said. UL Lafayette will be added to the list should it partner with Second Harvest in opening its on-campus pantry, which is one option being considered.

Seeing the need

Cross reached out to students and faculty to create a committee after hearing about the issue through national media.

“It started me to thinking in a school with 19,000 students, like we have here at UL Lafayette, there must be some students suffering from food insecurity,” he said.

“We know there are some who are homeless, sleeping in their cars, sleeping on other people’s couches,” which is not a far cry from food insecurity, he pointed out.

And research backs him up.

According to the Hunger on Campus report, food insecure students often also deal with housing insecurity, such as difficulty paying the rent, mortgage or utility bills.

“Students come to us in all forms,” Cross said. “We think of college students as young, healthy, unmarried with parents supporting them.

“Frankly, many of our students don’t fit that profile at all.”

Today 26 percent of American college students have children and 62 percent work while in school, Amy Ellen Duke Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said at a federal briefing by Partners for Our Children in December.

“They may not have all those ducks in a row,” Cross said. “These are the students we’re trying to target.”

Cross said he and fellow faculty would notice graduate students at events taking free food home and commenting about making it last the week. 

“It was really indicative to us,” he said.

Food pantries are another way the university can help its students succeed.

“Students struggling to find basic nutrition for themselves or for their children are not students spending time on ways to succeed,” Cross said.

Not having money for food or rent can impact a student’s academic performance, whether from the lack of ability to focus due to hunger and fatigue or from not being able to afford resources like textbooks. 

Some students also said in the report they missed or dropped classes.

Many students are not eligible for other assistance routes like the federal Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Recipients must be employed at least 15 hours per week, which isn’t possible for every student.

Food insecurity can be a problem even for students with jobs and meal plans, according to the report. 

How do we start a pantry?

The UL Lafayette committee began meeting in January and “has received nothing but support.”

The food pantry effort is in the very early stages, which means finding answers to a lot of questions.

“It raises all kinds of complicated questions,” Cross said.

Such questions include how they get the food, how to control the food, how to protect the food during off times, should food be refrigerated, what kind of food, should they regulate how many times students can come, is it open to all students, how to staff and fund the pantry and so on, Cross continued

“So we’re basically still working out the kinks,” said Chandler Harris, junior organizational communications major on the UL Lafayette committee.

“We know (food insecurity) is a big problem on campus, but we want to know on a bigger scale by doing surveys to really get a feel for how we should do this.”

Harris, a Greek Affairs representative, said she’s heard of students without access to cars, especially international students, experiencing food insecurity during holiday breaks when dining services are closed.

“(Being hungry) affects their growth as a person and a student, and that’s just not fair,” she said.

Northwestern State has seen the same issue in its international student population, which makes up about 22 percent of the more than 750 students served by the pantry since 2015.

“We are an important part of this campus because we are able to also serve our international students who do not meet the citizenship requirements for state or federal food assistance programs,” said Denise Bailey, an assistant professor of social work at NSU.

About 60 percent of pantry “consumers” only utilize the pantry once, but the other 40 percent often come each week, Bailey said.

It’s open to all currently enrolled NSU students, who just show their ID with the current validation sticker, complete an intake form and select their items. 

“We do not ask for any financial information, nor are students asked to explain their personal situation,” Bailey said. “Their signature on the application is their declaration that they are in need of an emergency supply of food. Our task is to try to meet that need.”

Currently enrolled LSU students may visit their on-campus pantry two times per calendar week.

“The mission of the LSU Food Pantry is to provide supplemental food to students in need who may experience hunger or food insecurity,” according to the website.

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