Ramen noodles. Priced around 13 cents a bag, they’ve been a staple of college life for decades, helping the archetypal “starving student” afford tuition, housing, books, and the occasional beer. But the typical shrug in reaction to this paradigm is giving way to real concern as institutions of higher learning realize that hunger on campus is a serious problem that’s hurting students’ ability to learn.
This summer, Rutgers University-New Brunswick became the latest of at least five New Jersey colleges and universities — and more than 300 nationally — to install a free food pantry on campus. So far, about 30 students have taken advantage of Rutgers’ non-perishable goods. But the need is far greater.
“This is a Band-Aid for us to help a student get back on their feet and be able to graduate,” said Kerri Willson, who runs the pantry out of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships. Wilson calls the assistance “supplemental” and notes that, until now, students have been forced to rely more heavily on New Brunswick’s approximately 20 public food pantries.
Because there’s currently no direct count of the student hunger problem in New Jersey, next month Rutgers will launch a study to determine how many of its students can’t afford regular meals. The state’s Hunger Prevention Advisory Committee estimates that in 2012, 13 percent of New Jerseyans were food insecure, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the “economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” National studies have determined that at any time, 20—30 percent of college students had spent some of the previous 30 days hungry; one study published on the College and University Food Bank Alliance’s (CUFBA) website found that half of the community college students surveyed were food insecure.
Willson believes the problem is much greater than studies would indicate. “There’s some shame associated with people asking for help,” she said.
Rutgers and other schools don’t label the room where students — and in some cases, faculty and staff — can pick up supplies. But they do solicit donations from student organizations, and Rutgers held a massive food drive during freshman orientation. The school collected 3,100 pounds of food this summer, which it can augment by using cash donations to buy supplies from community anti-hunger groups when necessary.
The very existence of the pantries is bringing awareness to the problem, and some schools are actively trying to highlight the issue. This year, Rutgers’ Honors College students will hold First Friday food drives and take part in regular discussions about food insecurity as part of their community service requirement.
But if hungry students haven’t generated too much concern in the past, why now? The answer lies in rising tuition costs and the changing demographics of the student body.
“It’s not so much about the middle class kid who runs out of a meal plan and can ask mom and dad for help,” said Lisa Pitz, who runs the Center for Food Action pantry at Bergen Community College. “At BCC the average age is 24. A lot of students are people who’ve lost their jobs (during the recession) and they’re going back to school but they have to provide for a family while they’re here.”
Post-recession, many parents of middle-class kids are struggling, too. Moreover, students often are not eligible for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits unless they work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a work-study program. All of these hungry students have to decide whether to spend their last few dollars on a trip to McDonald’s or a bus ride to class. Grades for those who choose bus fare may suffer just as much as those who opt to feed themselves.
“These students were coming to the nurse’s office saying they hadn’t had any food since breakfast the day before or earlier. They were nauseous or passing out,” said Pitz.
The community college study found that, “Food insecurity was significantly associated with student GPA, energy, and concentration in the overall student sample. Food insecure students were more likely to fall into a lower GPA category than they were to fall into the highest GPA category. Food insecure students were also more likely to report lower energy and concentration levels and the degree of food insecurity appeared to affect the probability of low energy or difficulty concentrating.”
BCC plans to organize a conference this winter for schools that sponsor food pantries to trade best practices and see what they can accomplish together. According to CUFBA, those schools are Rutgers, BCC, Seton Hall University, Caldwell University and Montclair State University.
Other states and university systems seem to be doing more. Maryland, for example, has nine schools with food pantries — five of which are community colleges. All six branches of Northern Virginia Community College have food pantries, as do most of the California State University campuses.
The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses on hunger and homelessness as it studies barriers to student success in higher education. Columbia University and New York University allow students up to free six meal plan vouchers per semester and encourage students with meal plans to donate points to their peers. Swipe Out Hunger is a nationwide program that promotes similar “swiping” donations among colleges and universities; out of the 20 schools listed on its website, none is in New Jersey.
But at least people in New Jersey are starting to recognize the problem. “There are a lot of jokes about college students eating ramen,” said senior Amoli Kulkarni, who interns in the Rutgers pantry program. “A lot of what’s changed is the recognition of the gap (at colleges) between what’s available and what should be available.”