Hunger is a bigger problem than you think at America's colleges

Many students at colleges and universities across the nation aren’t just hungry for knowledge. They’re hungry for food. And they need help.

A survey of more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges published by researchers at the University of Wisconsin in March found that two-thirds experience food insecurity at times. The study defines food insecurity as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate or safe food. The same survey found 14 percent of community college students are homeless.

And a survey last year by four campus-based organizations of nearly 3,800 students at 34 four-year colleges and community colleges found that 48 percent reported food insecurity in the past 30 days, including 22 percent who went hungry at times.

Many Americans are unaware the problem of student hunger exists, believing incorrectly that low-income students can get scholarships, loans and part-time jobs that provide enough money to meet their food and housing needs.

Unfortunately, skyrocketing tuition and room and board costs at both public and private colleges have risen far faster than inflation and funding for scholarships and loans in recent decades. For example, the College Board reports that the average published cost of tuition and fees at a public four-year college – when measured in constant 2017 dollars – rose from $3,190 in 1987-88 to $9,970 in the current academic year. For private non-profit colleges the same costs in 2017 dollars went from $15,160 in 1987-88 to $34,740 this year.

It’s easier for people to acknowledge hunger among community college students. When it comes to four-year colleges, the ivory tower casts a long shadow of stigma over many first-generation and low-income students. The assumption is that if they are privileged to be accepted to college – especially a selective private school – they’ve made it. So when students can’t afford to eat, there is shame.

I’m a first-generation low-income student myself, and I’ve experienced food insecurity and hunger. So I know the hardships of students around our country who are forced to regularly skip meals and can’t afford foods needed to maintain good health.

Making it into college isn’t supposed to make you feel like a ravenous rat is gnawing at the pit of your stomach while you’re sitting in class trying to focus on your professor, or trying to write a paper or study for a test.

Studies show that students who encounter barriers to basic needs are less likely to get good grades, and are more likely to stop and drop out. When students work long hours at low-paying jobs so they can afford food and shelter they have less time for their schoolwork and their grades often suffer, leading them to leave school.

I’m currently a student at Hamline University, a private school in St. Paul, Minn. Thanks to a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation I can afford a college education and my days of not having enough to eat are behind me. But with a husband who is also a student and three young children, money is still tight.

As a teenager I dropped out of high school to take a low-wage job to help my mother pay the bills. After getting a GED and fighting a serious illness that left me unable to work for seven years and required me to undergo 12 surgeries, I received an associate degree from a community college before heading to Hamline last year.

At Hamline, an astounding 76 percent of students responding to a recent survey reported experiencing hunger during the last academic year. This problem is not new, or unique to Hamline. But conversations about poverty at selective colleges are often taboo.

If colleges and universities want to commit to retention and success of low-income students, they need to start by opening resource centers on campus. Using food as a gateway, these centers help students secure access to sufficient and safe nutrition, housing, clothing, health care, child care, scholarships and other nonacademic needs. By partnering with existing local nonprofits, campus leaders can lower costs associated with operating such a center.

According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, 500 colleges now have a food pantry. Unfortunately, Hamline is not one of them. I’m among the students working to get one started.

The costs of attending college are higher than ever. Even so, education is billed as the most reliable vehicle out of poverty. Because of this, more students from low-income families are becoming first-generation college students with the help of scholarships.

But without non-academic supports such as food pantries, the rising costs of attending college effectively force students – even those holding part-time jobs – to finance basic needs like food and housing with student loans and credit cards that saddle them with debt for many years.

While institutional support may help, it is not enough to solve the nationwide epidemic of student hunger. Innovative and collaborative resources are needed at every level.

Some places, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are going a step further. Thanks to relentless advocating by recent graduate Brooke Evans, the university will become the first college in the nation to allow low-income students to use the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) on campus. Every college in the nation should follow this example,

The federal government should open up more anti-poverty and anti-hunger programs to low-income students, and expand the Pell Grant program to help such students pay for college costs. This will, of course, cost money. But young people who get college degrees will earn much more and pay much more in taxes over the course of their working careers and will strengthen our economy. So in the long run, they will more than pay back any assistance they get in college. 

Colleges and universities can take two relatively inexpensive actions to reduce student hunger.

First, begin conversations on campus on student poverty, and how it affects the student experience. And then follow up with action to address the systemic inequity that exists on college campuses. The Hamline Feed Your Brain Campaign is a collective of students (myself included) seeking to do this, arguing that healthy and plentiful food is needed to reach peak learning performance.

Second, partner with community-based food pantries to bring existing resources to students on campus. Hamline offers this through the Keystone Community Services’ Foodmobile. This service is available once per month.

Students are well into the fall semester and satisfying their hunger for knowledge. They have a basic human need to satisfy their hunger for food as well, and should not be forced to choose between getting an education and eating.     

An Garagiola-Bernier is a student at Hamline University and alum of Century College.