Lisa Pitz testifies during Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens and Senate Higher Education Joint Meeting.
Good morning. Thank you Chairman Vitale, Vice-Chairman Madden and the entire Committee for the opportunity to testify today about the growing problem of hunger on college campuses in our state.
My name is Lisa Pitz and I am the Coordinator of Outreach and Education at the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. I am also the site manager of the Center for Food Action pantry at Bergen Community College.
In June 2014, the Center for Food Action (CFA) was asked to open a pantry on the campus at BCC. This was due to an increased number of students showing up at the campus Health Center with complaints of headaches, nausea and dizziness because they had nothing to eat. It became apparent that many students and their families were facing broader economic hardship and in some cases, even homelessness.
BCC students are commuters who live in and around Bergen County, where the cost of housing is one of the highest in the state. Because there is no campus housing, there is also no meal plan available to students.
At the CFA pantry at BCC, we see traditional students who live with a parent or other family members who have lost jobs, are underemployed or on a fixed income. We see non-traditional students who are heads of household often supporting children - all of them working hard to get a degree so that they can improve their lives and lift themselves out of poverty. We have even seen homeless students – living in their cars and “couch surfing” while in school.
Some students we assist in the pantry have lost their jobs and returned to school in the hopes of getting a degree that will lead to a more lucrative, stable career. Students like Vivian, age 39, who was layed off from her job as a bank teller. Without a degree, she knew that her employment options would be limited. She received unemployment benefits and struggled each month to pay for the room she rents, pay off medical bills from a previous surgery and put food on the table.
She gets grants and loans to pay for school, but her books, transportation and living expenses are not covered. Some days she only has enough for one meal.
She recently applied for SNAP and relies on the campus food pantry twice a month for food assistance. Through our Homelessness Prevention program, CFA also helped Vivian pay late rent so that she can remain stably housed and complete her degree in accounting.
Some students we assist are preparing to return to the workforce after a life changing event. Angela, a 44-year-old mother of two teenage children, was going through a difficult divorce when she returned to college to pursue a degree in nursing.
Without a consistent source of child support, Angela often struggled to pay rent, utilities and put food on the table for her family. She came each month for help with food and even received assistance from a college compassion fund when her old car needed minor repairs so that she could get to her internship and complete her program.
She graduated in May and recently came to the pantry with a donation for other students in need. She said she wanted to give back because the pantry was, in her words, “a life line” while she completed her studies.
Many BCC students are the first in their families to go to college. Like Joseph, a 19-year-old who lives with his grandmother and sister. They struggle to get by on their grandmother’s Social Security and small pension. Joseph comes to the college pantry for assistance.
He works part time and helps the best he can while he pursues a degree in business. He often has a hard time focusing on his studies and thinks about dropping out of school so he can get a full time job and help support his household.
There are many more students that must make these tough choices everyday in New Jersey. Poverty and hunger should not be a barrier to higher education. We must, as a state, do whatever we can to address this issue.