When homework is least of your worries: How colleges help hungry students

Even before the pandemic triggered widespread unemployment, there were tens of thousands of college students without stable housing or enough to eat. Job losses in the restaurant and retail sectors, where many students find work, only made things worse. Now, some students are months behind on rent with a federal eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of the year. With federal aid from the coronavirus relief bill mostly depleted, and potentially a tough winter ahead, colleges are finding new ways to respond.

“There are things we’ve been asking for, for a long time, that are starting to happen,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.  “We really are seeing the faculty lean in, asking ‘How do I communicate care?’”

To help students find resources easily, colleges are creating basic needs websites, and professors are adding information about available supports to course syllabi, Dr. Goldrick-Rab says. They are also reaching out in more personal ways. 

Florida State, which offers a program for students who have experienced homelessness or foster care, held its freshman mixer online this year, delivering restaurant meals to students’ homes so they could eat together, apart.

A need-seeking majority

Nearly 3 in 5 college students were experiencing basic-needs insecurity in the spring, according to a recent survey by the Hope Center. The rates for Black and Hispanic students were even higher, at 71% and 65%. Colleges responded at that time with millions of dollars in aid to students, including from the federal relief bill. They gave institutional grants to international and undocumented students, who were ineligible for the federal aid.  

After abrupt closures, many let students remain on campus if they had nowhere else to go. Some schools kept a dining hall open, with limited hours; others handed out gift cards to grocery stores; or let students order from the food pantry online, rather than shopping in person. Staff delivered groceries to students who lived off-campus, without transportation, and helped students who had left the area find food in their communities. 

Some colleges even recruited faculty to help them find students experiencing food and housing insecurity. At California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, administrators asked faculty to flag students who seemed in need of additional support. At Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, staff trained professors on how to recognize the warning signs of food and housing insecurity in online classes, such as a reluctance to turn on video.

With students back on campus this fall, the college has started sending food to mailboxes at its Marietta campus, so students who place an order online don’t need to come to the Kennesaw food pantry to collect it.

Still, without walk-ins, Kennesaw’s pantry isn’t serving nearly as many students as it normally does, says Marcy Stidum, who created and now directs the college’s program for students who have experienced homelessness and foster care. She attributes the roughly 40% drop to students and faculty spending less time together in person this year, since some classes are online.

“We’re missing people that we know would have been referred to us if it weren’t for COVID,” Ms. Stidum says. “It’s like Horton and the Who, where we’re shouting, ‘we are here, we are here!’”

Students step up for classmates

Seven months after the relief bill cleared Congress, the future of a second economic relief bill is uncertain. Many public colleges face budget cuts that will make it harder for them to meet students’ needs going forward.

So, students are stepping up, too, creating spreadsheets and matching programs that let students and faculty share resources with those in need. On some campuses, students have built mutual aid networks that have raised thousands of dollars in emergency aid for their classmates.

“We know that there are quite a few students who can pay the full cost of attendance,” says Yannik Omictin, a senior at George Washington University who helped start its mutual aid network. “We figured what we can do here is redistribute some of that money.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Perez, the Florida State student, is back at work at a local cafe and able to afford an off-campus apartment. His lease is up in December, but he’s not feeling too stressed about it. He says he knows his school will help him find housing and employment if he loses them again.

 “As long as I keep going through school, working hard, I think I’ll be OK,” he says. “I’m pretty resilient.”


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