Food pantries step up as hungry students look for cheap food

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By Keith Demolder
Hub Correspondent  

The ramen noodle diet used to be a choice for college students, but now it’s become one of the limited options for students who find themselves living in hunger. 

As the cost of an education continues to rise across the board, hungry college students are turning to cheap meals now more than ever. 

According to a report from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness released last October, 48 percent of 3,765 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities reported being food insecure in the past 30 days. 

American food insecurity, defined as the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable and nutritious food, has been increasing in prominence in the last 10 years due to multiple economic factors. 

On a national scale, food insecurity has been linked by some to “food deserts,” defined as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food, especially vegetables.  

Economic Factors 

Contrary to this belief, USDA researcher Alisha Coleman-Jensen asserts that food insecurity stems from economic insecurity rather than a lack of available food. 

“Food insecurity is resulting primarily from economic restraints. Income and poverty are major factors,” Coleman-Jensen said. “So far, our research has not shown that food deserts are a major factor affecting food security. There may be some relationship there, but it’s not a major cause of food insecurity. The question is: Regardless of whether or not a store is right next to you, can you afford to purchase the food there?” 

Courtney Morra, Communication Manager for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, affirms that the United States’ reliance on local food banks has risen dramatically in the past decade as Americans struggle to keep up the rising costs of living.  

“The majority of the people we serve are who we refer to as ‘the working poor.’ And by that, we mean households where at least one person is employed and they’re dealing with stagnant wages and the rising costs of living,” Morra said. “People who have maybe lived in their homes their whole lives all of a sudden can’t afford to pay rent because their wages are not keeping up with the rising costs.” 

Students struggle  

Along with the “working poor” in Los Angeles County and around the nation, a majority

According to a report from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness published in 2016, of the 3,765 students surveyed, 48 percent or around 1,800 students reported being food insecure in the past month.

of food insecure college students find themselves struggling to pay for both rent and food when housing prices soar. 

Of the reported 1,807 food insecure students in the 2016 survey, 64 percent of those students reported experiencing some type of housing insecurity. Fifteen percent of food insecure students reported experiencing some form of homelessness – the most extreme form of housing insecurity – in the past 12 months, according to the national student campaign.  

The ever-growing need for food, has prompted food banks to sprout at college campuses all across the nation.  

As of 2009, just 10 campus food pantries existed.  

In 2017, there are more than 350. 

The biggest misconception about college hunger, collegiate food banks told The Hub, is that since students can afford tuition and rent that they should have enough money for food.  

In many cases, the opposite is true. 

Food pantries step up to fight hunger

At Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon 4,135 customers made use of the pantry from 2016-2017, a 722% increase from last year, and a 351% increase from the year 2014.  

“Although our college is one of the cheapest in the state per-unit, the cost is not as much as our parents paid. I also think about financial aid and what it covers. Most students use financial aid for books and for tuition, unfortunately scholarships don’t cover food or transportation and that’s a huge issue,” said Grecia Garcia Perez, a student service specialist at Chemeketa. 

At the University of Southern Mississippi, Tamara Hurst, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical social worker and a leader of The Eagle’s Nest, Southern Mississippi’s on-campus food pantry. 

Hurst believes that a cause of collegiate food insecurity can be explained by rising tuition rates and persistent lack of financial assistance available for college students. 

“We’re meant to be temporary assistance for these kids going through a hard time,” Hurst said. “Financial aid won’t cover enough and they’ve been reducing the availability and the amount of student loans over the years. People can’t work their way through college anymore with the cost of living, where minimum wage is, you’re never going to be able to save enough to put yourself through school.” 

At food pantries ranging from The Eagle’s Nest at Southern Mississippi University to the Food Security Project at Fresno State University, pantry leaders confirm that even with off-campus jobs, students from all walks of life still struggle to make ends meet. 

The Patriot Pantry at George Mason University currently serves 55 students and 125-200 pounds of food every week, with more than 120 students served since opening in 2015.  

Low-paying jobs hurt students 

Patriot Pantry representative Gary Hooker maintains that along with a stressful and time-consuming school schedule, low-paying jobs offered to college students are simply not enough to keep some students afloat.  

“We believe that the biggest factor in food insecurity among college students is that while trying to maintain classes, extracurricular activities, and a personal/social life, there’s not enough time to work a full-time job to make the money to keep you from being food insecure,” said Patriot Pantry representative Gary Hooker via email. “On top of that, there’s such large limitations in the workforce for college student, because employers want people who have experience. Working a part-time, entry-level job will not pay all your bills and keep adequate food in your home.” 

The solution to solving student hunger, while far off say pantry leaders, relies on reducing the stigma surrounding collegiate hunger by developing relationships and maintaining a positive environment inside pantries. 

Kristin Giffin, a representative from the sylmar-based Children’s Hunger Fund, stresses that helping those in need requires a community environment that emphasizes hope and acceptance. 

“When you’re impoverished, when you’re hungry and when you think you’re isolated in your situation, you continue to withdraw…Nobody wants to be the poster child for hunger,” Giffin said. “Creating the awareness and creating options for people to step into a community is huge. Creating an opportunity for a hungry student to come over and have dinner so that when he or she comes in, they don’t step into a community and say “Hi, I’m poor.” They instead say, “Hi, I’m happy to be here.’” 

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