Hunger University: Are College Students the New Face of Food Insecurity?

Auburn University is the most recent school to open a food pantry on campus to assist hungry students.

Saddled by rising tuition, multiple part-time jobs and, of course, their school work, students have been especially susceptible to food insecurity and increasingly visit food pantries for assistance. (Phil Boorman / Getty)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

There’s a startling new trend on college campuses, and it’s sweeping the nation: hunger.

This isn’t the “hunger” people talk about when discussing “poor college kids” who survive on ramen noodles and peanut butter. It’s much more serious than that. Increasingly, students at America’s colleges and universities are finding that between multiple part-time jobs, crushing tuition costs, and, of course, their studies, they often wonder what their next meal will be. To tackle food insecurity among students, many colleges and universities have opened food pantries on campus, where struggling students can discretely receive assistance when they need it.

Officials at Auburn University recently announced that starting Oct. 1, a room in the school’s busy student center will be turned into a student-run food pantry. The project is a collaboration between Auburn’s Division of Student Affairs and Committee of 19, a hunger-relief group comprised of students. Katherine Hettinger, coordinator for advocacy and case management in Auburn’s Division of Student Affairs, says the idea for a food pantry emerged from her encounters with students who are in crisis—many of them financially.

“We may not be able to pick them out of a crowd,” she says, “but if a member of our family is hurting, we need to help those family members.”

Committee of 19 president Lauren Little, a senior at Auburn, had no idea her friend struggled with food insecurity until she confided in her one day. As a freshman, the failure of the young woman's family farm and a serious medical emergency shattered the family's already fragile finances, leaving the young student on her own to get through school. She held two jobs throughout most of college, yet still relied heavily on food banks, food aid organizations, and her church to fill in where she fell short. Getting to the food bank was tough for her, however, without a car, and Little recalls the young woman's embarassment.

"Mostly, what I got from her was a feeling that she didn’t want anyone to see her," Little remembers. "Her grades weren’t great that first year because she was constantly worried about her family back home and how she was going to be able to make ends meet. As a freshman, to have to support yourself through college—that’s a huge transition."

Organizers say students like this young woman are why an on-campus food pantry at Auburn is so important. But the 25,000-student Alabama university is just the most recent school to start formal food assistance programs for its students.

Michigan State claims to have the first student-run food pantry in the country, started in 1993, which distributes over 50,000 pounds of food annually, according to data from its website. At Florida State’s food pantry, students can only take one bag of food at a time, but can visit “as often as necessary,” according to its website. The Rack, a food pantry at West Virginia University, opened in 2010 after campus officials learned of university students who were hiding their hunger because of embarrassment. Other on-campus food pantries have been opened in almost every state, from Georgia to Oregon. Many of the food pantries are run “by students, for students,” a model Hettinger says Auburn will adopt as well.

“We have so many students that are passionate about helping others, and they really want to do things to serve their community,” she says, pointing to the large faith-based population on campus. “When students are helping other students, it’s a really powerful thing to give back to your school family.”

Hettinger says that after the campus newspaper published an article last week announcing the food pantry, several professors contacted her with names of students they suspect may be hungry. While students struggling with food insecurity are difficult to stereotype, Hettinger says she often encounters international graduate students, often supporting families, who study hard, work as a teacher’s assistant for a modest stipend, and are ineligible for government assistance. These students may not only have trouble putting food on the table, she says, but also retaining adequate housing.

Both Hettinger and Little say assisting students who are struggling to afford good food is one way students and faculty can be "the Auburn family," which is an oft-used moniker on the tight-knit campus.

"We talk about [the Auburn Family], and it's a war cry at our sporting events," Little says, "but how much more important is [hunger] than our football games?"

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