Battling college food insecurity

Alyssa Jackson

When someone is in college, they have a lot to worry about: the next test, paper or assignment; juggling classes and usually at least one part-time job; joining clubs and activities to boost their resume for future employers; how they are going to eventually pay their student loans; and possibly how they're going to eat for the week.

College food insecurity is becoming a bigger issue on campuses throughout the nation. Feeding America's 2014 Hunger in America report estimates that of its approximately 2 million adult college student clients, 30.5 percent of them were forced to choose between food and educational expenses throughout the year.

Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Darrien Davenport, organizes cans of donated food for the food pantry in the SAU building Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, at York College. Food will be distributed twice a month on Fridays. Amanda J. Cain photo

Similarly, a research study of 10 community colleges across the nation done by the Wisconsin Hope Lab in 2015 found that half of the 4,000 college students surveyed struggled with food and/or housing insecurity.

Food pantry: A common and often easy solution for college hunger on campus is the creation of a food pantry. Penn State York and York College have food pantries students can use if they are in need of groceries.

Darrien Davenport, the assistant dean of student affairs at York College, said the campus food pantry started approximately a year ago after he heard of colleagues and students who were experiencing food insecurity. The campus' first monthly food distribution to students occurred in February, but demand has increased that to twice a month.

For Davenport, anonymity is key because he understands it can be embarrassing for young adults to admit that they don't have enough money for food. Each month, an email is sent out to the entire campus notifying students of the upcoming distribution days. Students then email his office and schedule a time to pick up a bag of nonperishable food. Only a very small number of administrators have access to the email, and even fewer people give the food to the students.

Even though students Tia Achile, Michayla Graves and ShaiQuana Bailey work in the Intercultural Student Life and Programming Office, which is where the food pantry is based, the only thing they can do to help with the pantry is stock the shelves and keep track of the donations.

Student workers ShaiQuana Bailey, left, and Suharis Pesantez, both of York City, work to shelve donated food products for the new food pantry in the SAU building Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, at York College. Food will be distributed twice a month on Fridays. Amanda J. Cain photo

"I know if I was a student that needed food, I don't know how I'd feel about other students knowing that," Achile said. Bailey agreed, saying that limiting the number of people to interact with at the food pantry and making sure students' identities are kept safe from their classmates gives them as sense of security. Davenport even puts the food into unmarked, brown bags so as not to draw attention to the fact that the student in need is carrying food from the pantry.

The pantry is stocked through donations. Davenport said the first donations came from faculty and staff, but later, students began chipping in by donating food or money to purchase food for the pantry.

"If food is a need, it's hard to do anything else associated with college," he said. "If a student doesn't have any type of solid and consistent nourishment, it's going to be difficult for a student to do other things on campus to be successful here at York College."

Achile and Graves can at times see food insecurity first-hand as resident advisers on campus. They said sometimes there are students who didn't get a meal plan because they can't afford it, but they can't afford groceries or don't have transportation to get food.

"School can be stressful," Graves said. "It's enough to deal with classes, so to not have a basic need being met is difficult."

There also is a free food pantry on Penn State York's campus, and students are able to get free food at the Nittany Success Center, an area on campus where students can get free tutoring and other academic assistance. Patrick Tanner, director of student engagement at Penn State York, said students in need can go to the director of student engagement office on campus to get nonperishable food.

Teaching students how to learn at Penn State York

Off-campus assistance: With nearly 20 percent of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) students living at or below the poverty level, Dean of Student Affairs David Satterlee said the campus understands the struggles its students face. Because it's not a residential college, students commute, and there is no meal plan.

HACC's approach is a little different: Rather than providing a year-round food pantry, the college has a community resource specialist, Tanisha Fuentas, whose job it is to connect students with resources that can help them. Fuentas said that two of the biggest struggles the students face are food insecurity and housing insecurity; in fact, a number of HACC students are at times homeless.

Fuentas helps approximately 50 students each semester by assisting them in applying for government aid and housing, finding local resources that they can use and finding other creative solutions to ensure their financial struggles will not impact their college careers.

"When students come in here, I just go over the resources and help them with what they need in terms of documentation," Fuentas said. "I think it’s important as an institution to see that this is a problem and have a plan in place and have resources available."