Each week, student volunteers at the University of Mississippi fill grab-and-go bags with food for their peers who lack the resources to purchase nutritious and filling meals.
In operation for over eight years, the university’s student-run campus food pantry, Grove Grocery, was created when campus leaders realized that some students did not have enough money for food at the flagship four-year campus in Oxford.
The pantry addresses a systemic issue that occurs all over the U.S. After paying for classes, books and housing, many college students simply do not have enough money left over for sufficient food. The pantry is both a sensible and realistic response that helps students finish their degrees.
That’s why we were so frustrated when Sam Zell, billionaire investor, went on CNBC to talk about the new stimulus plan and dismissed the idea that any college students need help.
“I’m hopeful that the next stimulus package is really directed to the people who need help,” Zell told the host. “I’m not sure that a $2,000 check to a college student is necessarily productive whereas there are people who are not getting enough to eat.”
Zell assumes that all college students fit into the traditional stereotype of being between 18 and 22 years old, unmarried, supported by their parents and without kids. But college students are more diverse in age and background than ever, with over 6 million postsecondary students over the age of 24 enrolled in Spring 2019 and a growing number of single mothers enrolled in undergraduate programs.
Studies suggest that anywhere from 11 to 45 percent of college students experience food insecurity, which means that they are purchasing less nutritious meals or forgoing some meals altogether. Among community college students, the problem is even more severe.
Although food insecurity among college students is hardly a new phenomenon, the number of people going hungry across the U.S. is projected to have worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to administrators at the Grove Grocery in Oxford, there has been a nearly 200 percent increase in students seeking food since the onset of the crisis.
We both helped start food pantries — Cara as a community college instructor, and Christine as a student at the University of Mississippi — after learning about the hardships facing our peers, students and colleagues.
We know the pantries help students — and sometimes staff — put food on the table. Cara talked to students who were relieved they could more easily access food on campus without having to drive long distances to other food pantries and to students who weren’t able to access food through other sources, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Christine encountered veterans who relied on the pantry to provide meals for their families. Conversations with customers at the pantry convinced her that it needed to expand its inventory to include feminine products and diapers.
Now we research food insecurity, knowing that good policy can make headway in the fight against student hunger. Along with campus food pantries, programs like SNAP can help alleviate food insecurity.
Yet, over the past four years, Congress has moved away from adequately funding such programs, and former President Donald Trump even proposed dramatic cuts to them.
At the same time, state governments have tried to enact harmful and costly policies, like drug-testing recipients, aimed at restricting access to such programs and making it more difficult for people facing food insecurity.
College students attending school at least half-time face even greater barriers than the general public in accessing relief, as they must meet additional requirements to receive SNAP benefits.
That’s why we applaud efforts by students at the University of Mississippi to create and maintain Grove Grocery — and of students doing similar work elsewhere — as it has been critical to ensuring that their peers have access to food.
But we can’t — and shouldn’t — rely on college students to eradicate hunger in higher education.
The American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill designed to revitalize the economy, provides an opportunity to mobilize resources and ensure that college students get much-needed relief.
It’s time for billionaire investors like Sam Zell and members of Congress to acknowledge that allowing these critical resources to reach Americans — including college students — across the country is vital in the fight against hunger.
Christine Dickason is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and an alumna of the University of Mississippi. Cara DeLoach is a Ph.D. student studying Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Vanderbilt University and is a former community college English instructor.
This story about college students and hunger was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.