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The hunger crisis in America's universities

The nation's largest food bank network reports that 10% of its adult clients are students, and 30.5% of clients choose between paying for education and food.
Nick Droege, Amanda Gray
Nick Droege, left, founder of Tiger Pantry food pantry for students, and Amanda Gray, operations coordinator for Tiger Pantry, walk through the facility during an opening ceremony in Columbia, Mo. on Oct. 1, 2012. The food pantry serves students in need of assistance in the Columbia area.

Hungry students don't enter the on-campus food pantry at New York's LaGuardia Community College; instead they sit in an office in the college's financial services center while a staff member or volunteer runs upstairs to get their food, bringing them unmarked grocery bags to take home. 

Little more than an unlabeled office, containing a series of unmarked file cabinets, the pantry goes undetected to most -- and that's the point.

Dr. Michael Baston, the college's vice president of Student Affairs, says the whole process is designed to be invisible.

"We did this because we feel like it is a stigma reducing strategy," he said. "Because we want students to feel like whatever the resource they need to sustain themselves, that would be available to them."

Battling stigma is a challenge for food pantries of all stripes, but the struggle appears to be especially pronounced on college campuses. After all, universities are supposed to be islands of relative privilege. If you can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year on a college education, the thinking goes, you can't possibly be hungry enough to require emergency food assistance.

Rhondalisa Roberts, a LaGuardia sophomore and food pantry client, has witnessed that stigma firsthand. She says that when she suggested that a hungry classmate of hers visit the pantry, the classmate told her, "Oh, I'm not going to go there. I'm not poor."

"It's very, very alarming," Roberts told msnbc. "Most students have a negative stigma when it comes to receiving help for food. Everybody doesn't want to receive food or seem needy, even when they are in dire need of resources."

It's difficult to track just how many college students are in dire need, but new data from the country's largest emergency food service network suggests that the number is at least in the millions. Feeding America's 2014 Hunger in America report estimates that roughly 10% of its 46.5 million adult clients are currently students, including about two million people who are attending school full-time. Nearly one-third of those surveyed—30.5%—report that they've had to choose between paying for food and covering educational expenses at some point in the last year.

Feeding America, a network of some 46,000 emergency food service agencies in the United States, releases its Hunger in America report once every four years. This latest iteration of the report, which is based on a survey of more than 60,000 Feeding America clients, is the first to include data about college students in need of emergency food services. The new research suggests that America's chronic hunger emergency has not spared institutes of higher learning.

Maybe that should come as no surprise, given that food insecurity—defined by the Department of Agriculture as lack of "access … to enough food for an active, healthy life"—has been rising steadily for years. In part that's due to the Clinton and Reagan administration's significant revisions to the welfare state. Yet the situation didn't become a true crisis until after the 2008 financial collapse, which caused food insecurity to rise by 24% in the space of a single year, according to USDA figures. In response, the federal government approved an emergency transfusion of funds into the food stamp program; but then it began to roll back those additional funds in November 2013, even though food insecurity had never returned to pre-2008 levels. The result was an unprecedented state of permanent emergency for emergency food assistance programs across the country.

As food insecurity rose, it also began to affect households that had never experienced it before. Data published by Feeding America in April suggests that 27% of food insecure people don't qualify for food stamps because their incomes are too high. And even as food insecurity continued to climb, so did college enrollment rates, in part because college is seen as a stepping stone to economic security.

"Poor people and people who struggle with food insecurity didn't used to go to college. ... If they were going to get education, they were going to get the free part and that's it," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. "But there's been such a strong cultural push and a strong economic push for college that people with no means are pursuing it."

As low-income populations have gone to college and food insecurity has risen up to swallow the lower rungs of the middle class, hunger has spread across America's university campuses like never before. In some places, it's practically a pandemic: At Western Oregon University, 59% of the student body is food insecure, according to researchers from Oregon State University (OSU). A 2011 survey [PDF] of the City University of New York (CUNY) found that 39.2% of the university system's quarter of a million undergraduates had experienced food insecurity at some time in the past year.

But it's not just undergraduates: the number of food insecure graduate students is also growing. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of doctorate-holding food stamp recipients tripled, according to a 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education analysis. The number of food stamp recipients with a master's degree wasn't found to have tripled over the same time frame, but it got remarkably close, going from 101,682 to 293,029. At one large research school, Michigan State University (MSU), the on-campus food pantry reports that more than half of its clients are graduate students.

Ying Liu, a doctoral student in chemical engineering and occasional client of the MSU Food Bank, told msnbc that MSU undergraduates are more likely to be able to call on their parents and other sources of financial support when necessary. Graduate students tend to have less of a safety net. At the same time they're likelier to have dependents of their own, who they often need to support on a meager stipend.

"A lot of students who are married, they have to support their children," said Liu. "Because their family is dependent on them. For one person it would be fine, but for a three or four-person family it's pretty high pressure."

Kristin Sewell, an anthropologist and doctoral student, is currently raising a teenage son while pursuing a five-year fellowship at MSU. Her daughter, who recently turned 20, is in college herself. Sewell told msnbc that her modest fellowship stipend is enough to ensure that she doesn't access the MSU Food Bank regularly, although she has used it "when things got particularly tight."

"Like after my first winter here in Michigan, I hadn't anticipated my heating bills would be as high as they were," she said. "I knew they would be high, obviously, but I hadn't planned for $500 electric bills. So then I decided to use the food pantry just to make ends meet."

Her decision was shaped in part by her own upbringing.

University of Colorado-Colorado Springs junior Chingis Zhanturiyev looks through a cabinet full of food on March 20, 2014, at Clyde's Cupboard, a campus food pantry to help serve students in need.
University of Colorado-Colorado Springs junior Chingis Zhanturiyev looks through a cabinet full of food on March 20, 2014, at Clyde's Cupboard, a campus food pantry to help serve students in need.

"As a kid myself, I had experienced hunger," said Sewell. "I grew up with a single parent in Southern California and we often went to bed hungry. I didn't want my kids to experience that, so I didn't hesitate to go to the food pantry when I needed to."

While it can be difficult for many small food pantries to provide high-quality food or other essentials, the MSU Food Bank does pretty well, offering meat and toiletries like toothpaste to its clients. In part that's because MSU has been in the food pantry game for so long: The Food Bank, which first opened its doors in 1993, is the oldest student-run, on-campus emergency food providers in the United States. Just over two decades later, the program serves about 2,200 clients, from an overall student population of nearly 50,000.

"We're an established part of the campus community," said Nate Smyth-Tyge, MSU Food Bank's current director and a PhD student in the university's Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education program. "People know they can rely on our services to bridge that gap. And that's sort of our underlying philosophy: We provide the assistance to students to bridge that gap."

On-campus food pantries were extremely rare when the MSU Food Bank first launched, but more and more schools have come to adopt them in recent years, as students and administrators have taken note of the rising hunger in the midst. Mainstream news organizations like the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post also caught on. Meanwhile, Smith-Tyge starting getting emails from people on other university campuses, asking questions about how the MSU Food Bank is run.

"About a year and a half ago I'd been getting so many of those inquiries that I started to think and about about the idea of some kind of association," said Smith-Tyge. He ended up connecting with Clare Cady, Human Resource Center coordinator and food pantry administrator for the Oregon State University. Together, Cady and Smith-Tyge founded the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) in March 2013. Nearly a year and a half later, CUFBA has members running food pantries at about 100 universities nationwide. Smith-Tyge said he's aware of roughly 30 on-campus food pantries in the United States that are not affiliated with CUFBA.

The alliance is still growing. Every week, CUFBA receives at least one email from a new university where people are interested in establishing a food pantry. When that happens, Cady and Smith-Tyge try and share best practices with then interested party, as well as connect them with more experienced food pantry administrators in the region. The biggest challenge, said Cady, is "creating sustainable programming."

"What I see happen is that folks say, hey, we want to get this started. And they're able to get a grant or food donations, or they're able to develop a USDA partnership or a food bank partnership, and they're able to get food and distribute it," said Cady. "That's a lot of work and it requires a strong partnership to keep it going, especially when you see increased need or increased participation."

Staff and student volunteers fill orders at the Michigan State University Student Food Bank on Feb. 23, 2011
Staff and student volunteers fill orders at the Michigan State University Student Food Bank on Feb. 23, 2011

And participation does increase, once the word gets out that help is available for food insecure students. Yet limited resources and the voluntaristic nature of the program mean that food pantries will rarely, if ever, capture the full extent of the need on campus. In the meantime, research on food insecurity among community college students and children in primary or secondary school indicates that persistent hunger can negatively affect students' ability to focus on their education—the same education which is supposed to act as a pathway out of food insecurity, at least in theory.

"Being hungry inhibits learning," said Goldrick-Rab. "We certainly know something about stress and how that contributes to challenges in how healthy people retain material."

Meanwhile, she added, many hungry students find they can only afford to pay for food if they forego purchasing class materials such as books. In that situation, "you're not studying with the right materials, so your grades go down, so you lose financial aid," she said. The loss of that aid can be the final straw that forces students to drop out.

In June, Goldrick-Rab helped arrange a "Housing and Food Security Workshop" through the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which she directs. She described the event as "a pretty heartbreaking day." Students who attended the program discussed the trouble they have publicly admitting that they're hungry, fearing that it would socially isolate them or help to reaffirm some of their classmate's racial stereotypes.

"I certainly don't think we as a country ever agreed that this is an okay way to do things," said Goldrick-Rab. "We agreed to give people financial aid so they don't have to starve to go to school."