• By Lisa Brody

The new battlefront in food insecurity fight

Spending 10 or 12 hours on University of Michigan-Dearborn's campus each day isn't unusual for Sara Alqaragholy, a senior studying urban and regional studies. But after paying for gas to get to campus, tuition and textbooks, midway through those days, not surprisingly, she often finds herself feeling really hungry. Sophomore year, as her family was enduring difficult financial times, affording even a snack, much less lunch, while she was at school was out of reach for her.

“I was working several jobs, on and off campus,” Alqaragholy recalled. For a few years she worked in the library on campus; in 2017 and 2018, she worked on voter registration drives, as well as holding down other jobs.

“To get gas in my car and to gain work experience, so just to get snacks while on campus,” she ended up tapped out financially.

She turned to the food pantry on campus.

University of Michigan-Dearborn started their food pantry on campus in 2013 after hearing from students that they could either spend their money on food or gas – but not both, said Brendan Gallagher, coordinator for civic engagement at U of M-Dearborn as well as director of the campus food pantry.

Gallagher, a former student on the campus who is now an administrator, was then one of the students who started the food pantry.

“We're largely a commuter campus,” he said, “with a very diverse community both religiously and ethnically. We have both a lot of first generation students and commuters.”

First generation students refer to students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Having a food pantry on campus, unfortunately, is no longer a unique attribute, but a necessary component to address widespread food insecurity among students, whether undergraduate or graduate.

“There are now food pantries at all 15 (Michigan) public universities, community colleges and many private colleges,” noted Jean Ann Miller, senior director of the Office for Student Involvement at Oakland University. “We only opened our pantry in October 2018. Like ours, most are primarily for students, but also faculty and staff. They're not open to the outside community. At ours, there are no questions asked – they just must show their student or faculty ID to ensure they're part of our Oakland University community.”

Since opening, there has been a steady flow of people accessing the food pantry, with some individuals becoming regulars, she said. “Now it's just getting the word out about the availability of this resource,” on campus.

Food insecurity, defined as being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, is currently a situation that 12.3 percent of U.S. households experience. It's defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. According to 2016 research done by Susan Blumenthal, M.D. and Christina Chu, then with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there are an estimated 17.5 million undergraduate students in America, 15 percent of which are enrolled in four-year colleges and living on campus. Twenty-five percent of students are over the age of 30, and 43 percent attend two-year institutions. As of May 1, 2019, student loan debt totaled $1.6 trillion, with an average household student debt of $47,671. Blumenthal and Chu determined that low-income students are more likely to drop out of college for financial reasons, such as not having the funds to cover living expenses associated with student life, including books, supplies, transportation, health care, clothes, housing and food, and it occurs at both four-year and two-year institutions.

A multi-state survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin of more than 33,000 students enrolled at 70 colleges in March 2017, found that as many as two-thirds of students were food insecure.

“Many students consider food to be their most flexible expenditure when determining where to cut expenses, which may be contributing to the alarming rates of food insecurity across college campuses in the United States today,” Blumenthal and Chu wrote.

“I think it's one of those hidden aspects of college life that's become more aware as costs are increasing,” Miller said. “Some students are choosing tuition and books over basic necessities, and the choice might be food. It's become an either/or.

“This is across the country, not just at our school.”

David Strauss, dean of students at Wayne State University, concurs.

“It's not just food – it's all basic needs,” he said. “With the increasing costs of tuition for college, it's food, shelter, clothing.”

Strauss said on the Wayne State campus, he has seen a big increase in student food insecurity in the last decade. “We weren't talking about this 10 years ago. We weren't talking about food insecurity, homelessness, basic needs challenges. Everyone was always having food drives for Gleaners (Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan,) but that was for other people. Now we're having department food drives for our students.”

Strauss and other administrators at area schools of higher education emphasize the reason food insecurity and hunger is such a major issue – and pressing talking point – is because it can be a direct impediment to student success.

“If we look at student success, and we focus on student success and graduation, our number one goal is to get them across the finish line – and if we cannot get them nourishment, we can't help them succeed and across the finish line,” Strauss explained. “For many of our students, the question is, do I buy a textbook or food?”

“Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students,” from October 2017, a production of the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, Student Government Resource Center and Student Profile Interest Research Groups, found that 32 percent of students suffering from food insecurity reported it had affected their educational performance, with 55 percent of those students stating they did not have sufficient funds to purchase their required textbooks; 53 percent missing their courses; and 25 percent ending up dropping their courses.

Most food insecure students, 56 percent, are working; 75 percent of them receive some financial aid, including Pell Grants; and 43 percent are enrolled in a school meal plan. Food insecurity occurs at both two-year and four-year institutions, with 25 percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security (more severe levels of insecurity, where both the quality of food and the quantity is impacted), compared to four-year students. According to Hunger on Campus, food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color, with 57 percent of African American students reporting food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students. More than half, 56 percent, of all first generation college students were food insecure, compared to 45 percent of students who had at least one parent who attended college.

Rachelle Bonelli, vice president of programs at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, said their food bank is part of Feeding America, and partners with three campus food pantries, Wayne State University, University of Michigan-Dearborn and University of Detroit Mercy, which began their pantry recently in 2019.

“It takes a while for word to get out, and for the stigma to lessen,” Bonelli said. She noted that food insecurity is higher at community colleges.

“If you don't have the money to go away to college, maybe you have to work,” she speculated.

Identified risk factors around low income students, Bonelli said, include being a first generation college student, a single parent – especially a single mother, homeless, had been a foster child when they were young, and had or currently have a disability.

“Any of those things increased the risk among low income students,” she said, pointing out that in Michigan, the cost per year for tuition and room and board to attend a public institution is now $21,823, and $33,489 per year for a private institution. “If you come from a low income household, where the poverty rate is about $20,000 a year for a family of four, how are you going to send your kid to school?”

Like Alqaragholy, the senior at U-M-Dearborn, the report noted that food insecurity is a problem for students who are employed, participate in a campus meal plan, or who seek other financial or material help, with 56 percent of food insecure students reported having a paying job. Of those employed students, 38 percent worked 20 hours or more per week. In order to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, a student must work a minimum of 20 hours a week in addition to attending classes, or have a dependent under the age of six.

Nationwide, 25 percent of students receive SNAP benefits.

“If students aren't eating, they're going to class, working part or full-time jobs, they're operating on fumes,” noted Raneisha Williams Fox, coordinator of student wellness at Wayne State University and the W Pantry, Wayne State's food pantry, which during the 2018-2019 school year gave out more than 8,000 pounds of food. It opened in April 2017. “In a week we'll see 25 to 28 students, and between 80 and 100 students monthly. Since we've opened we've serviced 1,500 students, and we've given out more than 20,000 pounds of food.”

She said they see both undergraduate and graduate students, with a mix of ethnicities, although “we're seeing more graduate students (right now), because I think – life. They tend to have more responsibilities – they have bills, higher tuition, household bills and responsibilities and they may have kids.” The W doesn't ask any financial questions nor screen anyone. “Just because you have a job doesn't mean you don't need help,” Fox pointed out.

It's also open twice a week during the spring/summer terms, “and even if a student isn't enrolled for spring/summer, but is enrolled for fall, they can still access it. Just because the semester is over, doesn't mean you won't be hungry.”

Fox said they have a caseworker through their Connor Service Center on the premises once each week to help individuals through the application process for state and federal benefits.

“That was an important aspect we began because many students don't think they qualified, and they do,” she pointed out. “Or that they didn't have time to apply. So this helps. It also dispels the stigma and the myth of who qualifies for assistance.”

She said they see more females than males. “I don't think there is a big difference, but I think more females are comfortable asking for help.”

Gleaners' Bonelli said they have SNAP benefits, or the ability to get people qualified for them, and they want to encourage individuals to become educated about them.

“Most able-bodied people between the ages of 18 and 49 enrolled in college are not eligible for SNAP,” Bonelli acknowledged. “Some come from means, are working, but when you realize that to get SNAP benefits you have to work 20 hours a week or are taking care of a dependent in their household under six, or participating in a work/study program or other workforce training program – so there are opportunities to be approved. But it is difficult to be a full-time student and work full-time.

“It's difficult for students to get on SNAP – it's ironic,” she said. “They should really be getting ahead. Their job should be studying.”

“What we're seeing now are the children of the (Great) Recession,” pointed out Wayne's Dean Strauss. “If we look at traditional students age 19, 11 years ago, they were eight years old. Instead of saving, (their families) were using that money to eat, pay housing, credit card debt. Today, we're seeing greater financial insecurity, mental health challenges and social media challenges. So many of our students are caring for their families. We hear of so many students using their financial aid money to care for their families (rather than for school). If they have an emergency, they have no credit, no money, and no one to turn to.”

Miller, of Oakland University, agrees. “This is a reflection of real life. You don't think how pervasive it can be in our communities, and it is an eye-opening reminder.”

“There are no questions asked” of those who utilize the pantry, opened in October 2018, or any of the other services offered to students and faculty. Of the variety of needs many recipients require beyond food assistance, she noted, “We're not a counseling center, but we offer a lot of resources, from transportation, housing, legal aid, information, for our commuter students so they can be successful personally as well as academically.”

The W pantry has a partnership with Gleaners, as does University of Michigan-Dearborn's food pantry, allowing them to purchase food at a discount. Oakland University does not at this time. The W offers both perishables and non-perishables, with 25 percent purchased from Gleaners and 25 percent coming from on and off-campus food drives.

Fox said that besides healthy and sustainable food, they also provide feminine hygiene products, toiletries, razors, gently-used household items and some school supplies.

“We are also teaching sustainability,” she said. “We have two nutritionists who are students, in the nutrition science program, who are creating recipes from items in our pantry, from staple items we always have. We noticed in the beginning students didn't know how to cook. They were getting healthy food but didn't know what to do with it.

“It's a collaborative effort,” she said, “so students aren't just coming in for food, but for nutrition advice and lessons as well, and they have access to recipes.”

Fox has a leadership team of 13 students who volunteer at the pantry. “It's students helping students – they can say, 'it's OK. I've used it, you can too.'”

At University of Michigan-Dearborn, Alqaragholy has turned her personal experience as a pantry client around and now volunteers there to help her fellow students in need.

“I oversee the restocking of shelves (which includes toiletries and feminine hygiene products also), making sure the pantry looks very nice for anyone coming in,” she said. “I really enjoy helping others. We are working very hard to meet the needs and wants of our recipients. We want our recipients to feel as comfortable as possible.”

She recognizes that many people feel a stigma or shame in utilizing a food pantry.

“Maybe it's my personality, but I didn't feel any stigma (when she used the pantry),” Alqaragholy said. “But I can see that for some others. We're built to think we should be able to take care of ourselves, and should be ashamed if we can't – and that's not accurate or right. There should be no stigma or shame.”

Since 2013, University of Michigan-Dearborn's pantry, which also is staffed and run by student leaders, has also worked with Gleaners, Brendan Gallagher said, “which allows us to purchase food and non-food items for pennies on the dollars. One of the challenges of that is when people ask how they can help, some donate food items, but I tell them to donate money because I can go out and stretch that money so much farther by going to Gleaners.”

Gallagher said he is developing a big fundraising campaign for next school year on that – as well as that they saw three times the number of students use the food pantry last year, “so if that continues, we will need to increase the dollars to help them all. Here at U-M-Dearborn, the food pantry is really supported monetarily, and by food donations, by the administration, staff, students and alums.

“We really see ourselves as a resource on campus like any other that is imperative to help students be successful and not have the lack of food be a barrier to being the best version of themselves.”

They also have begun to provide recipe cards to recipients, as well as educational demonstrations to teach how to read labels, what the difference is between “sold by” and “best use by” and are planning cooking demonstration on simple types of meals.

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