Lawmakers Hear About Impact of Food Insecurity on College Campuses

By David Cruz, NJTV Correspondent

As if the intellectual and social rigors of college life weren’t enough, add to that the pressure of trying to figure out where your next meal is coming from and you start to get an idea of what it’s like to try to lead a full, balanced college life.

“It’s very difficult and the impact is that our students aren’t doing as well as they could do, academically,” noted Sen. Sandra Cunningham.

Cunningham chaired a joint hearing today of the Senate’s Higher Education and Health and Human Services committees where lawmakers heard from college administrators, educators and students about how common the problem is becoming.

“They plan their daily schedules around classes, work and finding food,” said Jewel Daney, the senior case manager at the Office of Dean of Students at Rutgers University. “They have told me — and these are quotes — ‘I’ve had nothing to eat in two days, four days,’ ‘I eat only one meal a day,’ ‘I have eaten only pasta and rice the entire summer.’”

A study by the College and University Food Bank Alliance found that 48 percent of college students reported experiencing food insecurity. Students of color — 57 percent of black students compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic whites — were also dealing with food insecurity. Thirty-two percent of those impacted said the issue affected them academically, meaning they couldn’t afford text books, missed classes or even dropped out of a class entirely.

Brynne DiMenichi, a PhD student at Rutgers-Newark, says the numbers there are even more stark — up to 60 percent of students, according to a survey, qualified as food insecure.

“After hearing the staggering number, we decided to create Pantry RUN, which is a student-run food pantry for students, faculty and staff at Rutgers University-Newark,” she said. “Since our soft opening six weeks ago, the pantry has been utilized 93 times by 56 students and staff members. We’ve provided 867 pounds of food, which comes out to be about 433 meals.”

It’s a sobering reality on campuses across the state. There’s a food pantry program at Montclair State University, too. The carefree days of chilling on the quad may still be a reality for a lot of college kids today. But they’re the lucky ones. For just as many, academics is only one of the many chainsaws they have to juggle.

“It is trying to help the family,” said Karen Pennington, VP for Students Development/Campus Life at Montclair State University. “In many cases, these are students whose families are not financially secure, but they recognize the importance of education. It’s a student struggling to get to campus, to get to class, to get the books that they need, to eat every day and to be able to be comfortable in their surroundings.”

Today was mainly a listening session, said Cunningham. This is an issue that needs deeper study, she said, and lawmakers are still trying to figure out ways they can help more directly. What they got today was a lot of food for thought.