Many have difficulty accessing government food programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Only 20 percent of the students in Goldrick-Rab’s study who had low or very low food security received SNAP. That’s in part because SNAP, which is still colloquially known as the food-stamp program, has work requirements. And while there are exceptions in the rules that would enable some students to qualify for the program, the provisions can be extremely confusing: To apply, for example, students might have to go off campus to the government office, endure long waits, and then fill out excessive documentation. (Some advocates believe that school attendance should count toward the work requirements in SNAP for college students. CLASP’s December 2015 report, “Bolstering Non-Traditional Student Success,” discusses other reforms that would assist low income college students.) Lots of students opt to avoid taking out loans to support their meals in fear of going to debt.
Many community colleges are striving to streamline the application process for food stamps and come up with other ways to address student hunger. In addition to helping students complete SNAP paperwork, according to Duke-Benfield, some campuses are training staff in the financial-aid office to advise students about the range of government programs, while others are training their academic faculty to recognize students who may be hungry or homeless and to counsel them. More schools are putting questions about food and housing into the admissions forms; on-campus food pantries, even at four year schools, are popping up around the country.
Take the Thrive Center for Financial Success at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, which was created last February to assist students meet their daily living expenses in order to increase retention rates. Crystal Colón, its coordinator, said the school, which is also creating an on-campus food pantry, had to respond to the large numbers of students who were hungry and living in cars. The Thrive Center helps nearly 600 of its 6,000 students obtain clothing vouchers, acquire emergency cell phones, and completing SNAP forms; it provides information about hours and locations of local food pantries.
Bergen Community College, meanwhile, asked the Center for Food Action, a nonprofit group that provides emergency services for low income residents in Northern New Jersey, to create an on-campus food pantry for students in 2014. Lisa Pitz, a program director for CFA, said that administrators were concerned about the number of students that were checking into the health center due to poor nutrition. Some hadn’t eaten in several days. Pitz provides three days of groceries to students, as well as staff and adjunct faculty, every Tuesday and Thursday and provides microwavable meals to students who need immediate sustenance. These students also need help with housing and bus fare to get home that day, so she connects them with local governmental agencies that provide social services.
“These aren’t people who are sitting around not doing anything,” Pitz said, “These are kids who are working full time and going to college and still are hungry... I just hope that these students get good paying jobs when they graduate.”
Goldrick-Rab plans to expand her survey to study more students in 2017 and to monitor their access to food. Ultimately, she wants people to understand that students can’t pass exams if they are hungry.