Hunger among college students: Food pantries expand on Pittsburgh campuses

Student Chantelle Bellavance, 25, visits the food pantry at the South Campus of the Community College of Allegheny County once a month to supplement the food options for her and her 7-month-old daughter. (Photo by Njaimeh Njie/PublicSource)

 

Chantelle Bellavance is a single mom with a part-time job. She is also a full-time college student aspiring to become a mechanical engineer.

Her days are filled with difficult coursework, time at her on-campus job and the task of mothering her 7-month-old daughter. To top it all off, her financial situation also forces her to juggle which basic needs are most important for her and her daughter.

At times, the 25-year-old has to decide: “Can we pay the gas bill or do we buy food?”

Her food burden has been eased somewhat in the past year since CCAC’s South Campus opened a student food pantry.

Once a month Bellavance is able to visit the food pantry and choose from an assortment of canned goods, boxed meals, pasta and pasta sauce, cereal, meat and sometimes fresh produce.

The groceries are meant to be a three-day supply, but she is able to stretch them further, freeing up money for other things.

Her story is one of many on college campuses big and small, here and elsewhere, as hunger is identified as an emerging issue among students.

Last week, the national College and University Food Bank Alliance added its 400th member, marking a four-fold increase from 2012 when it started with about 35 members, said Clare L. Cady, founding director of the alliance. The member schools in the alliance range from community colleges to Ivy League universities.

Cady believes that hunger has always existed among college students. But the problem has become magnified since the recession of 2008, she said, and by the fact that, for the past decade, federal financial aid has not kept pace with the rising cost of college.

Surveys show need

Studies show the need for food is greatest at community colleges and among students of color and first-generation students.

Locally last week, the Community College of Allegheny County expanded the hours of the food pantry it opened in February at its South Campus in West Mifflin from two hours once a month to two hours four days a week.

And, CCAC is looking to establish permanent food pantries at its North, Allegheny and Boyce campuses where it has held pop-up pantries.

“We can’t retain students if they are hungry,” said Kelli Maxwell, dean of student development at CCAC South.

In its first year, the CCAC pantry has served 98 students who have made a total of 235 visits. Including the students’ family members, the total served is 260 people.

For 23-year-old CCAC student Sean Kutch of Liberty Borough, the campus pantry means that he and his parents have a wider variety of food as the family can afford to shop only at discount stores for their food.

Maxwell said she believes there are more students who need the help because there were 1,300 students on campus in 2015 who, according to federal guidelines, had family incomes low enough that they were not required to make any contribution to their tuition.

The federal government doesn’t survey college students about food insecurity or hunger.

So the food bank alliance along with some student groups conducted a survey in the spring of 3,800 college students in 12 states. The results show that nearly half of the students reported food insecurity in the previous month.

Those results are similar to a survey done at the CCAC South Campus, where about half of the 150 students who responded to a survey indicated they would like to have access to a pantry.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank plans to hire a consultant to survey students on eight local college campuses in the new year, said Charlese McKinney, network development director.

“We hear things anecdotally. We know (hunger) is there and we want to know where it is and we want to address it,” McKinney said.

The food bank is a partner with CCAC in its campus pantry. It is also in discussions with Penn State Greater Allegheny and several other local colleges about starting campus food banks.

The recent national survey results, released in the report Hunger on Campus, showed that even students who had a meal plan reported they do not always have access to adequate food supply because the least expensive meal plans did not include three meals a day.

For Andrea Hanna, an international graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, visits to the Pitt Pantry, located at Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland, help to supplement the $150 she has in her monthly budget for food.

Hanna’s housing costs ended up being higher than anticipated, using up a big chunk of her $17,000 annual graduate student stipend.

Cady said international students often end up short of cash after housing expenses because they don’t get good information about housing options before arriving.

At the Pitt Pantry, she is able to stock up not only on food staples, but she also has access to a limited supply of toiletry items and leftover baked goods sent from Oakland bakeries and coffee shops.

“It’s massively helpful,” said Hanna, 27, who came to Pitt from Northern Ireland for doctoral studies in religion and rhetoric.

Once Andrea Hanna pays her monthly bills, she has about $150 left to spend on food. She finds food and toiletries at the Pitt Pantry. (Photo by Connor Mulvaney/PublicSource)

 

In addition to the food pantry at Pitt, there are informal methods on campus for matching hungry students with food via social media.

One is the Pitt Food Share Facebook group where the group members post notices, complete with photos, of available food left after activities or receptions.

Another is a student-run swipe sharing program that matches students who have extra meal swipes with students who need a meal.

Pantries mirror markets

The California University of Pennsylvania also operates a food pantry, and Chatham University plans to start one. The college food banks are stocked through campus food and fund drives.

At Carlow University, students who need help are provided food packages from goods that are collected during food drives for outside pantries, spokesman Drew Wilson said. Also, meals are arranged in the school cafeteria for students who indicate a need.

At the various campus pantries, students can browse shelves and choose from items as if they are shopping at a market. In addition to boxed meals, pasta, canned goods and meat, the pantries offer limited toiletry items and items such as paper goods.

At the Pitt and CCAC pantries, students are asked to self-identify as being in need based on federal income qualification guidelines. Those guidelines allow a family of one to make $17,820 and a family of four to have an income of $36,450.

But the students are not required to show proof of income.

The campus pantries are meant to provide food for a few days, or just gaps of time when buying food isn’t possible. They aren’t intended to be the primary source of meals. Students are given information on how to apply for the state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as food stamps), which provides funds for food to families who meet income guidelines.

The pantries also have emergency packages of food that are given at any time for students who have no food.

The CalU Cupboard, an initiative started in fall 2015, offers monthly food distributions. This school year, it added “grab-and-go” items such as soup, oatmeal or noodle dishes that students can eat for quick meals on campus.

Students can stop in each weekend at the Center for Volunteer Programs and Service Learning office for the grab-and-go meals or snacks, said Diane Hasbrouck, manager of the center.

Students tend to use the pantry more near the end of semesters as they run out of money or meals on their meal plan, Hasbrouck said. About 12 to 15 students regularly show up for monthly distributions, but by the end of the semester, it can jump to 25 or 30 students. Many more come for the grab-and-go items.

Hasbrouck said center staffers ask students if they are first-generation college students, military veterans, international students and if they live on or off campus.

“It’s all over the board. No big trends have really jumped out,” she said. “Every student story is different.”

Reach Mary Niederberger at 412-515-0064 or at mary@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MaryNied.

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