Hunger on campus: The fight against student food insecurity

“We are trying to reduce the stigma. It’s OK to get some help, to get some assistance,” said Reniel Del Rosario from Berkeley.
Members of the Friday restock team at the UC Berkeley Food Pantry.
Members of the Friday restock team at the UC Berkeley Food Pantry.Reniel Del Rosario

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By Farah Otero-Amad

While most Americans will be grateful for second and third helpings this Thanksgiving, there's one surprising group who struggle to find a first helping every day: students at some of the nation's top universities.

“I can’t go to the grocery store to buy breakfast because if I use this money I’m not going to be able to use it for something else like dinner or lunch,” said Damian Hernandez, 24, who graduated from Columbia University earlier this year.

Hernandez, who is from Chicago, was one of thousands of students who are considered food insecure, meaning they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, or if it’s coming at all. With the high cost of tuition, living and meal plans, food insecurity on college campuses poses a real threat to student livelihood, especially those who are low income and lack access to government assistance programs.

Researchers from Temple University surveyed 86,000 students from over 100 institutions, primarily at public universities and community colleges, and 17 percent said they had been homeless within the past year while 45 percent said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days.

“This is to shed light on the extent of the problem that a lot of college leaders or college administrators don’t really know about,” said Vanessa Coca, a co-author of the study and the assistant director of research at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. “They might know of a couple of exceptions, but they think of exceptions, right?"

According to data from the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFA), 30 percent of college students are food insecure.

Shelves inside the UC Berkeley Food Pantry.Reniel Del Rosario

College meal plans for students are often too expensive for low-income students. At Columbia, a meal plan for first-year students has to be paid up front. That’s $2,802 per semester, $11.40 per meal — about $34 a day. Students who can’t afford a meal plan visit the food pantry at Columbia, which opened just over two years ago.

“I know that I have this as my safety blanket,” Hernandez said. “If I ever need food I don’t have to worry about where I’m where I’m going to get it from next week or what I’m going to do to feed myself.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, students line up to an hour before their food pantry opens. The pantry serves approximately 1,000 students per week, including Reniel Del Rosario, 22, who has used the pantry for the past four years.

“After awhile, going to a 99-cent store or the dollar store for groceries wasn’t ideal,” Del Rosario, who is from Vallejo, California and graduated in the 2019 class, said. “Being able to get fresh produce and things that are more nutritional helped me a lot.”

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This particular food pantry serves fresh produce from local farmer’s markets free for students, offering a healthy alternative to instant ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Produce stand inside the UC Berkeley Food Pantry.Reniel Del Rosario

As a full-time student while working over 20 hours a week at his work-study job, Del Rosario was often confronted with a tradeoff between spending his money on food and other needs. He budgeted a total of $50 per week on groceries.

“I feel like I did have to go hungry,” he said, and sometimes “had to limit myself to the amount of food for the week because I had to save money for other things.” Most of those other costs went toward class materials and paying for rent in Berkeley, one of the most expensive metro areas in the country.

Although his budget did not deter him from spending time with friends, he would often opt to accompany them to lunch but not buy anything — "because it would be $5 for a boba drink or $10 for lunch. That’s one fifth of my grocery budget already!”

Berkeley has approximately 30,000 undergraduate students, 65 percent of whom receive financial aid. Del Rosario said that the food pantry is not being used to its full capacity because many students feel embarrassed about needing help.

“We are trying to reduce the stigma. It’s OK to get some help, to get some assistance,” he said. “We are all human beings, and food is a basic need.”

While food pantries at college campuses start to address the issue, the authors of the report said that college administrators should do more — like letting students know whether they are eligible to receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, available to millions of low-income individuals, also known as food stamps.

Some lawmakers have responded with legislation aimed at helping ensure that college students' basic needs are met so that they can focus on their studies. For example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill this past summer making it easier for low-income college students to qualify for CalFresh, the state's food assistance program. For the first time in 2020, the federal government will collect nationally representative data on the characteristics of students in postsecondary education instead of relying on individual studies.

However, Congress has not taken action on the proposed College Student Hunger Act of 2019, introduced in July. The bill would allow more college students to participate in SNAP among other benefits.

At Southern Connecticut State University, surveys conducted over the last few years showed that about 30 percent of the 10,000-student population falls into the category of food insecure. The school is currently in the midst of setting up a food pantry of its own.

“There’s a definite need for it,” said Sarah Rogers, who works with AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) and was hired by SCSU to lead the efforts in creating a food pantry on campus. “Students who were worried about hunger, homelessness, medical care expenses and life were having a hard time in the classroom and were struggling to finish.”

While the location for the pantry is set, the next step in the process includes holding a donation drive to bring in food and resources. Once the pantry is stocked and ready, students will take over all operations. Rogers hopes that the presence of the pantry, set to open in January, will make students feel more comfortable in asking for assistance.

Hernandez was among those students who initially felt hesitant to ask for help. He earned himself a scholarship to attend Columbia after transferring from a community college. “I’m already lucky enough and privileged enough to get a scholarship that allows me to come here but I shouldn’t ask for more,” he remembered thinking. “I should be able to secure my own food.”

Tuition alone for undergraduate students at Columbia University is $58,920 a year, not including housing, books, transportation or food. Hernandez's scholarship was not enough to cover the cost of living in New York City.

But the food pantry saved him from accumulating even more student debt. “I already take out enough loans to help me with my rent,” he said. “Luckily this stops me from taking out more loans.”

The CUFA reports that over 640 schools around the country, from community colleges to Ivy League universities, have food pantries on campus. At Columbia and Berkeley, any student with a school ID is welcome to the pantry and encouraged to take various food items for free.

Both Hernandez and Del Rosario spent years volunteering at their respective pantries to help other students facing similar circumstances.“I wanted to be one of those people that tries to make those differences on campus,” said Hernandez. “I’m not sure if I’m doing enough, but I try to do my best to help out other people with food insecurities.”

For Del Rosario, the pantry was more than a place for food. As an art major, it also served as his inspiration: “When I started volunteering at the pantry, one day I was restocking and became obsessed with this thing of quantity,” he remembered.

Reniel Del Rosario's Ceramic Artwork Inspired by the Food Pantry at UC Berkeley.Reniel Del Rosario

This led Del Rosario to create a series of ceramic replicates of consumer products, such as canned food, snacks, and meals on plates. The Berkeley dining hall showcased his work in an expedition.

Del Rosario credits the pantry's tightknit community as his motivation for giving back.

“I think volunteering at the pantry has been some of the most fun I’ve had in undergrad,” he said.” “It made my day.”