Among Dorms and Dining Halls, Hidden Hunger


Katie Robbins

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."

Two hours north of City College's campus, at one of the nation's most elite public universities, UCLA students are also experiencing food insecurity. Last fall's announcement of a 32-percent tuition hike exacerbated the problem, according to senior engineering major Abdallah Jadallah. Even before the increase, he noticed that many of his classmates were struggling to feed themselves, trying to get by on one meal a day—cheap but filling Taco Bell bean burritos are a particularly popular choice for the day's nourishment. He also noticed that many of the school's campus organizations regularly offered refreshments at their meetings and events, the leftovers from which were then thrown away. He found the discrepancy disturbing, so he went to the university's community programs office and requested a space to set aside leftovers for hungry students. The UCLA Food Closet was born.

The closet, really a small converted office, houses a donated refrigerator, an office cabinet that stands in as a pantry, and a table. Students can use the microwave in the building's kitchen to heat their meals, such as ramen or cans from a recent gift of ten Costco-sized cases of pork and beans. The Food Closet is kept open throughout the day so that students can come and go with relative anonymity.

"It's hard for them to admit they're going through this," says Thuy Huynh, an advisor who helps administer the student-run food closet. So in her requests for donations, she asks specifically for compact, transportable food items that can easily be concealed in a backpack. "Students are embarrassed to be caught in the closet, so having something that they can grab and go [is essential]. They take a couple of things and then leave for the day."

This sensitivity to privacy makes it difficult to track precisely how many students use the pantry, but Huynh estimates that between 30 and 50 students visit each day. The hidden nature of student hunger also made it difficult to gain support at first, she says. "People don't realize it's an issue. This is a middle-class campus."

Even when the problem is revealed, a tension often persists between helping these students and serving populations perceived as being in greater need. At the pioneering college food pantry founded in 1993 at Michigan State University, the staff was criticized initially for taking away donations from more traditional food banks. But that perception has gradually changed, says Kristin Moretto, director of the MSU Student Food Bank, which now operates with an annual budget of around $40,000. "We are not taking resources away from the rest of the community. The Lansing food bank has more resources because we exist. If we didn't, our students would be going over there."

That university students are a needy population may take some getting used to, but the idea of helping them access food on campus is spreading. Both Moretto and UCLA's Jadallah have been receiving calls from universities around the nation seeking advice on starting similar programs.

"The old 'I didn't go to college because my parents couldn't afford it' is gone," Moretto says. "More people are funding themselves to go to college and are trying to figure it out." And as they do, some may need help along the way.