New Jersey higher education representatives gathered today at the Statehouse to inform lawmakers about growing student hunger on their campuses during a special legislative hearing organized by the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.
They spoke of students who are forced to choose between buying books and buying food, students who plan their daily activities around attending free campus events where food will be served, students who walk miles to school to save transportation costs so they can afford a meal.
The growing number of young people attending college – many of them from low- and middle-income families – is one factor behind this growing hunger on our college campuses, experts told lawmakers.
Many colleges and universities are responding by establishing campus food pantries for students. Such pantries now exist at Rutgers, Rowan, Montclair State and Caldwell Universities, as well as Bergen Community College, among others.
Lisa Pitz, who conducts outreach for the coalition and staffs a Center for Food Action pantry at Bergen Community College, told stories of non-traditional students, like Vivian, a 39-year-old who, after six years employed by a local bank, lost her job as a teller. She went back to school to earn an education that would lead to a better, more secure job.
But even with grants and loans, Vivian still didn’t have enough to buy adequate food and cover her other living expenses. The food pantry gave her the lifeline she needed to survive her college years. Thanks to help from the food pantry, Vivian is able to continue working toward her degree in accounting.
Students also spoke about the difficulties of concentrating on their school work when they were worried about where their next meal would come from. Two Caldwell University students said the assistance from their school’s food pantry was critical in helping them complete their college degree.
Yet, while college food pantries provide temporary relief to struggling students, they are a “Band-Aid” approach to solving a serious and complex problem, college officials told lawmakers.
What’s needed is a more comprehensive approach to campus hunger, New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition Director Adele LaTourette told legislators.
The coalition is working with the New Jersey College and University Food Pantry Alliance to forge broader solutions that will prevent college students from going hunger. She told lawmakers that this should include encouraging 2- and 4-year colleges and universities to formulate comprehensive plans to combat campus hunger.
For example, colleges should build some type of food insecurity screening into the admissions process that would help identify students at risk of hunger and help connect them with appropriate resources before hunger strikes.
LaTourette also said the coalition is working with college and state officials to enact changes that would make it easier for college students to receive nutrition support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps). Current work requirements make it difficult for many full-time students to qualify for this assistance.
In addition, colleges and universities across the state are teaming up to identify additional policy and practice changes that can be implemented to reduce hunger among all types of college students.
LaTourette thanked the many higher education officials who took the time out to share their stories.
“We are encouraged that so many leaders in higher education recognize the severity of this problem and the need for a sustained, comprehensive response,” LaTourette said. “We look forward to working with the higher education community to ensure that every college student – whether a 19-year-old freshman or a working parent returning to school – has enough to eat so they can complete their education and find secure jobs.’’