NJ unveils effort to combat food insecurity at community colleges

The three major costs in college are tuition, room and board, but the financial strain of all three can leave some students unable to afford at least one of these. Carole Johnson, the commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, says for community college students it’s usually food.

“We see the data that suggests that as many as 40 percent of students in community colleges struggle with food insecurity, and today is really about recognizing that college affordability means more than tuition for some families. It means making sure they have access to vital services, like food assistance,” said Johnson.

“Twenty-five percent of our students are from families that earn less than $30,000 a year, and 53 percent of our students report working 20 hours or more per week. A third of our students report working more than 30 hours a week. So that balance they try to strike between going to school, work obligations, family obligations is very difficult and the money is stretched thin,” said Dr. Mark McCormick, Middlesex County College interim president.

Determined to end the cycle of food insecurity on campuses like Middlesex County College, Johnson announced its expansion of SNAP eligibility to community college students. Federal rules require college students to work 20 hours weekly to qualify for SNAP. It’s a heavy burden for a student who is managing a full-time academic schedule or a nontraditional student who has a family to take care of. The state is now allowing community college courses to count toward work requirements for SNAP.

“Now we’re going to say all community colleges in New Jersey, career and technical education programs, meet that training program requirement. The County College Council tells us that’s an estimated 67,000 students who are in that program who are lower-income, who meet the eligibility requirements for SNAP, will get access to SNAP,” Johnson said.

The goal of the initiative is with more New Jersey students able to receive SNAP, there’s a better chance of them completing their education and going on to land higher paying jobs.

“The numbers are increasing as we see families trying to move up the economic ladder and get a better job. We see a lot of families turning to education programs, technical schools, like Middlesex County College,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

It’s college food pantries that allow students to focus less on where their next meal will come from and more on their studies.

“I have used it before. My reason for being passionate about it is because I realized that everyone goes through things and sometimes we have that amount of pride and it prevents us from accepting help when it’s there. Everyone can walk into here and feel comfortable because everyone needs food, everyone gets hungry at one point or another,” said student Shanique Reid.

Since September, 82 students have visited the campus’s food pantry 160 times. The new policy change will be effective early next month.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight