By Stephanie Shanblatt, Quintin B. Bullock, and Kevin Pollock
While it may seem improbable to some that food insecurity could exist on college campuses in the United States, the problem is very real.
As the cost of living continues to climb, more colleges are seeing hungry students—particularly community colleges, which enroll a higher percentage of students from low-income families or students who are the first generation to attend college.
Food insecurity is a growing concern since it can impact students’ academic performance and completion.
Although a national solution is sorely needed, community colleges across the country are developing their own localized solutions.
In Pennsylvania, Bucks County Community College, the Community College of Allegheny County, and Montgomery County Community College are among those who have been investing in support mechanisms to start addressing the problem.
After learning that 30 percent of students surveyed said they did not have enough food, Bucks County Community College started a Food Insecurity Fund in 2018. Students complete an online form to meet with a college counselor and receive a $50 grocery store gift card as well as information about available resources, such as food pantries and free produce distributions. The college’s Foundation raised funds for the gift cards, and plans are underway to expand the program to offer cafeteria gift cards and snack packs.
Montgomery County Community College and the Community of College of Allegheny County have created campus food pantries.
Montgomery County Community College’s Stock Up for Success Program began in 2014 after several academic advisors learned from faculty that some students were missing classes because they could not afford both bus fare and food. Over the years, the pantries have grown in size and scope to include refrigerators for produce and dairy products, as well as personal hygiene items and school supplies.
Food insecurity, however, is too large of a problem for community colleges to tackle alone.
Partnering with neighboring agencies, the Community College of Allegheny County expanded its services and operates food pantries at each of its four campuses as well as at the college’s urban center.
The initial Allegheny food pantry, the South Campus Cupboard, was the first partnership program of its kind with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and, as such, has become a model for other college campuses in the region.
A grant from the Jefferson Regional Foundation also helped the pantry to get off the ground by providing funds for renovation and refrigeration. In recent years, pantries have been created at CCAC Boyce Campus, also affiliated with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as well as at CCAC-Allegheny Campus, CCAC-North Campus and CCAC’s Homewood-Brushton Center, all of which are affiliated with East End Cooperative Ministry.
These initiatives are making a difference. Students who utilize the pantries are showing improved academic success, retention and graduation rates. For example, an analysis over the life of the CCAC-South Campus food pantry (2016–2018) shows fall to spring retention rates of 83 percent among students who used the food pantry, compared to 71 percent among students who did not.
However, these efforts are only a Band-Aid for much deeper wounds. Food insecurity is rarely an isolated problem. Many students who are hungry are financially strained and have a limited support network, and some are even homeless. Chronic hunger not only impedes academic success, but it also impacts decision making and affects students’ overall well-being.
To help address some of these issues, Montgomery County Community College recently became a JED Campus, partnering with the Jed Foundation to help students with mental health concerns, and with Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice to help identify the specific needs of students.
Community colleges are community institutions that want to do more to help students, but public funding is limited, and large endowments or major donations are rare. While partnerships help to increase resources and reach, community colleges are only scratching the surface.
Food insecurity on college campuses is a national problem that needs a national solution, not piecemeal repairs. The best place for Congress to address this issue is during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which should address all of the costs students face.
This is vital for community college students who don’t fit the typical college student profile and are often overlooked. Many are balancing work, family and school responsibilities while trying to cover the basic needs of food and housing. Food insecurity becomes a college-completion issue, and neglecting this problem has a long-term, negative impact on all communities and the economy.
A national investment to address all the costs students encounter in higher education will help to remove barriers to completion and is an investment that needs to be made to secure a better future for our students, our communities and our nation as a whole.
Stephanie Shanblatt is the president of Bucks County Community College. Quintin B. Bullock is president of the Community College of Allegheny County, and Kevin Pollock is president of Montgomery County Community College.