Community college students face higher rates of food insecurity

It’s hard to study if you’re hungry, but that’s the reality for thousands of college students across the state, like Bergen Community College sophomore Malaya Grant.

“Honestly, it’s extremely hard, because there are times I would only have $5 in my pocket and would barely be able to get anything to eat,” she said.

According to a survey published this year by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin Hope Lab, of the 419,000 students attending college in New Jersey, about one-third, or 139,000, are food insecure. Among community college students, 42 percent are facing hunger.

Grant says in order to stay afloat, she uses the campus’s food pantry.

“It’s just nice to know that I have a safe place to go and there’s not a crowd of people walking around,’” she said.

“These students may already be living in low-income households or working low-income households. They are oftentimes the first person in their family to go to school, first generation in this country,” said Lisa Pitz, outreach director for Hunger Free New Jersey.

Pitz says in 2014, at the request of Bergen Community College, the Center for Food Action opened a site on the college’s Paramus campus.

“We have students who come and they bring an extra backpack, so when they leave the pantry they have the food in the backpack so nobody sees them carrying grocery bags out of the school,” said Pitz.

Without food pantries on campus, students may be forced to delay their education to make ends meet.

“A lot of our students have issue with money, so either getting here by Uber, or the bus, or things of that nature versus eating or buying books, they would pick those things over eating first,” said Bergen Community College nurse Dania Huie-Pasigan.

According to the research, just 20 percent of New Jersey college students suffering from food insecurity received food stamps. That’s because federal rules require college students to work 20 hours weekly to qualify. That can be a heavy burden for a student who is managing a full-time academic schedule, or a non-traditional student who has a family to take care of.

“We have kids who are working 32 hours a week, taking 18 hours of classes. How can they meet certain requirements for this?” asked Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly.

Wimberly is one of the sponsors of the Campus Free Hunger Act. It’s part of a larger anti-hunger bill package which will be heard in the Assembly Human Services Committee on Nov. 29.