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Campus Food Banks Grow, Fight Stereotypes

The number of food banks serving students on college campuses has climbed in recent years as more students seek a road out of poverty.

Students stock shelves at a food pantry

Photo: Student Association (flickr)

Campus food pantries such as this one at the California University of Pennsylvania are reporting higher demand for food for impoverished students.

Campus Hunger

Over the last few years, the number of food pantries on college campuses has increased dramatically. The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) reports that from 2008 to 2015, the number of food pantries in their network grew from just a handful to 199.

The flagging economy played a big role as low-end wages stagnated and older students went back to school to try to boost their income.

Clare Cady, director and co-founder of CUFBA, said the number of new campus food banks is now leveling off, but members are seeing increased demand and more questions about how to tackle student homelessness.

“For somebody who is either experiencing poverty or hovering at that line between doing ok and having an economic crisis, something as simple as getting their glasses broken could push them into a tough situation where they have to make decisions about what they should and shouldn’t pay for.”

A lot of them are working full time and still struggling. And some of them are supporting families and a lot of them don’t have parental support financially.

Don’t All Students Starve?

Cady said campus food banks fight against some powerful myths.

Many people assume all students are affluent enough to pay for college, she said, or receive support from their families.

“A lot of them are working full time and still struggling. And some of them are supporting families and a lot of them don’t have parental support financially,” Cady said.

When it comes the image of the struggling college student, poverty might seem like a rite of passage. But that idea doesn’t match up with what advocates see on the ground, where many students face serious food insecurity.

“We’re not talking about sort of this Dickensian, romanticized notion of this working hard college student who maybe doesn’t get to turn up the heat as much in the winter and is eating ramen. We’re talking about students that truly aren’t getting meals.”

More Study Needed

Hard data on student homelessness is scarce. Previous studies have shown a wide range of results, reporting that between 14 and 60 percent of students experience food insecurity.

A study is underway at the California State University system to determine how many students lack food and housing.

Advocates are also lobbying to add questions about student poverty to surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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