Food Insecurity: A Growing Issue Among College Students

| February 16, 2019

CLARION CO. Pa. (EYT) – Although people may joke about college students living on ramen noodles, it turns out that food insecurity among students is a growing problem in our region and across the nation.

(Photo above by Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media Photography)

Kelly Ryan, Assistant Director for Service and Leadership at the Clarion University of Pennsylvania, told exploreClarion.com, “For years, I’ve heard more and more about students living independently and being on benefits.”

“I know we’ve had students who have had to apply for food assistance or other kinds of things, and that’s a troubling thing to hear. Working in community service, we think we do all of these great things, we go out and help other people, but our own population also needs help.”

According to the USDA, some students may be eligible if they receive other forms of public assistance under a Title IV-A program of the Social Security Act, work at least 20 hours per week, or have a dependent under the age of 6; even so, many students are ineligible for benefits because they do not meet the criteria.

Food insecurity is generally defined as an individual’s access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods that is limited or uncertain. A national survey that gathered data for a study at the Wisconsin Hope Lab discovered that out of 43,000 students at 66 institutions across the nation, 36% of university students were food insecure within 30 days of taking the survey.

Ryan noted that this increase in students having difficulty with food insecurity and seeing assistance isn’t a new issue, but it does seem to be a growing problem.

“I can’t say it was just one year we noticed this, it’s been a creeping up kind of thing, and personally, I think as we started to put some of these other success supports in place, the students just had someone to go to. If (they) have a mentor or success coach, then we have a relationship now.”

As the relationships build, there is better communication, and the support service groups learn of the students’ needs.

The University has recognized the food insecure issue with its students and has taken measures to assist those in need. A small student food pantry that began in another building is now under the direction of the Center for Engagement and Development in Gemmell Hall, and it is evolving as it grows, according to Ryan.

“It was just sort of a walk-in closet, and people were just bringing in odds and ends. Then, we started seeing some of the national narratives about student food insecurity, and we started listening to what students were saying, and we realized it was more of an issue than we initially thought,” Ryan said.

The current food pantry is located in a former office space, vacated after the renovation of Gemmell Hall in 2016. The room has several shelving units stocked with a number of nonperishable food items, personal care products, paper products, and cleaning products.

“We were originally thinking since there’s a wardrobe in there, we could put a couple of suit jackets or something for if someone had an interview, but then people started giving more clothing, and it just wasn’t really the right space for that.”

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Ryan says the food pantry is continuing to evolve, while those in charge are also attempting to find out more about the students in need, what they need, and why they are unable to fill those needs themselves.

“Before this, it was just people who donated if they wanted to or if they had some extra stuff at home, but right now we’re switching over to taking inventory, trying to find out how much need we really have, and stocking things,” Ryan said.

According to Matt Shaffer, Director Of Student Engagement and Development, monetary contributions to the account supporting the pantry can be made through the Clarion Students’ Association.

“We have a very giving faculty and staff who come down and drop off items or contribute financially to the account,” Shaffer said. “Our faculty and staff really do care about our students.”

While changing the pantry over from a “mish-mash” of donated items to a system driven more by the students’ needs has been one change, looking more closely at the students’ specific needs and why they’re not being fulfilled is another.

“We’re opening up questions to the students, asking if they live on campus or off campus or at Reinhard, which is away from campus but still University property. We want to see things like do we need more of those microwave things for students who don’t have access to really cook?” Ryan added.

Ryan noted that while the questions they’re asking will help them more efficiently stock the pantry with the items that students need, they also hope to look at the deeper root issues at play.

“There are multiple meal plans available. You don’t have to get nineteen meals per week. Is it that they just didn’t purchase enough? Is it that they didn’t have the money to purchase enough? Is it money management? There could be anything from a minor issue of ‘I ran out of money, but I’ll have more soon, so I just need a box of cereal to get me through,’ up to generational problems that are the complete opposite end of the spectrum where people just don’t know how to manage their time, their budget, their kitchen. So what’s the next step from a pantry?”

“I think it’s going to be interesting for us to see, what are those ‘whys’ underlying the issues because that will help us help them,” continued Ryan.

According to Shaffer, one of the changes they’ve seen over the years that may contribute to the issue of students going hungry is an increase in students attempting to help support their families while attending school.

“They’re going home, they’re working jobs, just to be able to try to prop up a living for their family, and there’s stress that comes from that, the pull to go back home, and sometimes they’re not able to meet their own needs because they’re trying to do more for their families.”

While some students may be helping support their adult family members, many others may also be supporting dependent children. According to a study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, as of 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, just over one-quarter of college undergraduates in the U.S. were parents with dependent children.

Clarion University is not the only university in our area looking at how food insecurity issues are affecting students, either.

At the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the Fredrick Douglass Institute’s “Each One Reach One” group offered a “pop-up” food pantry for IUP students in November, as the university began working to establish a long-term food pantry program for students.

The original proposal for the food pantry, which included everything from marketing strategies and budget needs to staffing plans, was drafted by students in a Public Health Nutrition and Epidemiology during the spring 2018 semester. The IUP community was then encouraged to donate to the fledgling program during the Giving Tuesday campaign, which ended up raising almost $8,700.

At Slippery Rock University, a food pantry program was organized after a Slippery Rock Student Government Association (SGA) survey discovered that almost 40 percent of students at the university had experienced either not knowing when they would have access to food or were aware of fellow students who had been insecure about accessing food. The SGA began collecting non-perishable food items during the 2018 spring semester to establish the SGA Food Pantry.

These programs are certainly not unique to western Pennsylvania, either. According to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, more than 640 colleges and universities throughout the nation currently operate food pantries on campus.

According to Shaffer, though the root problems may be complex and the issue widespread, it is up to students, faculty, and staff to work together to ensure that every students’ needs are met.

“It comes down to knowing that when students get more of those basic needs met, they do better in school, so it’s important for us to do our part in trying to assist them in meeting those needs.”


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