Cherie Bromley-Taylor has an open door policy with the students she works with at San Diego City College. So when one catches her in the middle of lunch, needing help to navigate the CalWORKs welfare-to-work program she helps facilitate, she doesn't hesitate to invite him to have a seat. What does make her hesitate, however, is a trend that she began to notice. "The student would come in and they would be so hungry that they would ask me for the apple I just took a bite of," she says. "The student's stomach is growling and head is aching, and they're telling me they're hungry. So I would feed them."
Asking around, Bromley-Taylor realized she was not alone. Many of her colleagues were regularly giving hungry students five dollars here and there to buy lunch or dinner. When the staff had potluck meetings, they often found students lurking by the door, eying the spread.
While college students are known for their insatiable appetites, this went beyond the eternal collegiate quest for free snacks—these students were hungry because they couldn't afford food. Bromley-Taylor wanted to do something, so last November she helped launch a free bag lunch program for City students.
Programs like this one are popping up at campuses from Florida to Oregon, responding to the problem of low food security among college and university students. While the question of how to stretch minimal financial aid dollars or wages from part-time work to pay for a wide range of expenses has long been an issue for students, it's only gotten worse with the recent recession, say program administrators. Parents have fewer resources to help out, there is greater competition for work-study jobs, and many schools have increased tuition to cover their expenses. On-campus meal plans are often cost-prohibitive.
At City, the nonperishable sack lunches contain some sort of protein, fruit, a bottle of water, and a couple of snacks, and are available to any of the community college's students. Since beginning in November, Bromley-Taylor says the school has handed out an average of about 10 lunches a day. Because of limited resources, students can take advantage of the lunch service only once a week, meaning that about 50 students use the program each week.
Bromley-Taylor came up with this model of food assistance after doing a needs assessment of City's students. She learned that the community college's students—most of whom are older re-entry students and many of whom are recent immigrants or refugees—were going without food to get by on limited budgets.
"Much of our population is below poverty level," she says, "so when they get a thousand-dollar financial aid check, it goes toward a backpack, class materials. Not food."
"Food is food," says Jessica Pannell, a second-year City student who not only partakes in the program but also helps facilitate it. "It's a priority, but it's not as much a priority as a car note or transportation or a bill."
The survey also found that although students knew about resources like community food banks and church soup kitchens, they often had little access to transportation, leaving them on campus for long hours with little to eat. "You're at school all day and it's difficult to pay attention," Pannell says. "You want to go to sleep, especially on test days. You're stressed out. There's anxiety just because you're hungry."
Pannell says the advent of the bag lunch program is helping to change that. "It's a good hands-on program," she says, describing students who come running in for sustenance before class or tests. "This way they don't go to school starving."