It’s hard, if not impossible, to succeed in college if you’re hungry. Seems like such an easy concept that it’s not worth mentioning.
But behind that simple concept are some staggering statistics. According to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, more than 50 percent of community college students nationwide do not have access to healthy and affordable foods.
As a researcher who focuses on poverty, I believe campus hunger is a significant factor behind inequality in college completion rates. And “food scholarships” may be a solution.
Some elected officials have begun to take notice. Last summer, Gov. Jerry Brown of California included US$7.5 million in his budget to develop “hunger-free” college campuses. In December, advocates convened a federal briefing about campus food insecurity on Capitol Hill, where legislators are advancing bills to make it easier for undergraduates to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP.
In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed requiring food pantries on all State University of New York and City University of New York campuses to create a “stigma-free” way to provide students with consistent access to healthy food.
In other states, such as Texas, grassroots efforts are leading the charge. These include a University of Houston and Temple University research project with which I am involved. The project is meant to study the impact of hunger on community college students and look at possible solutions.
Hunger transcends class
Who are the students that don’t have access to healthy and affordable food?
According to Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at Temple University and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, what’s making students go hungry today is different than it was in years gone by.
“Even though a far greater percentage of college students qualify for financial aid than in the past, colleges and states have fewer dollars per student to allocate to them,” Goldrick-Rab said.
The majority of these students are financially independent and provide for others. Many are single parents. They grew up in the middle class and did not qualify for reduced-cost or free meals during their K-12 education through the federally funded School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program.
But once they graduate high school, parental support often ends and so do the programs meant to help feed them.
These are the students like 25 year-old Ashley Elliot at Houston Community College, who lost both parents and was left in debt, according to officials at the college. With a 3.5 GPA, Elliot is determined to finish school despite mounting financial challenges.
Eighty-eight percent of the students at Houston Community College, polled last semester indicated that food giveaways helped them focus more on school, according to a survey by the college. This is why food scholarships are being pursued as a solution.
The Houston Food Bank’s Food for Change program seeks to help students by providing them with 60 pounds of food. The groceries available include seasonal produce, frozen meat, dry goods and some canned goods. Goldrick-Rab, the sociology professor at Temple University, and I are evaluating the program in a project supported by the William T. Grant Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.
We believe it’s the kind of program that could bring real change to those who need it most. At the Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas and the seventh-largest school district in the United States, 77 percent of children are economically disadvantaged and qualify for the reduced-cost or free breakfast and lunch programs. A number of these students graduate and enroll in community college, including Houston Community College, the second largest community college in Texas.
These students receive financial aid, but the fact that the cost of tuition is outpacing the cost of living is making it difficult to make ends meet. Once in college, students who experience food insecurity are at risk for academic failure, including lower grade point averages.
A potential solution
The impact of HCC’s Food Scholarship Program on students’ academic performance and persistence in college will be evaluated over the next two years. If the program helps students do better in college and stay in college, those outcomes could help convince lawmakers and policymakers to do more to tackle the problem of campus hunger.
In the meantime, students such as Ashley Elliot say it’s important for students to overcome whatever reluctance they may have to ask for help. “Asking for help took me out of my comfort zone, but it was necessary,” Elliot said. “Don’t give up if you don’t initially get the help you need. Sometimes it takes just talking to the right person.”