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Food and care pantries becoming core component at many colleges

The nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger estimates more than 800 schools now have food pantries, from flagship universities to regionals like Georgia Gwinnett.
Food and care pantries becoming core component at many colleges
Posted at 11:10 AM, Oct 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-12 12:13:53-04

Georgia Gwinnett College isn't very well known outside of Georgia, or even outside of Gwinnett County. It's a regional four-year college with 12,000 undergraduate students. 

In other words, it's the type of college that educates nearly half of all undergrads in America. It's also where we meet Amani Anderson.

"I used up all my money for bills, and I didn't budget out my money to get groceries," Anderson told Scripps News. "And so, I know that the care pantry is there for me if I run out of money."

At the height of the pandemic, fewer than half of college students in a national survey said they had a high level of food security. More than a third said they worried their food would run out before they got money to buy more. 

It was the climax of a trend that had been building for years, along with a stopgap solution.

SEE MORE: Organizations working to alleviate food insecurity and waste in US

The nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger estimates more than 800 schools now have food pantries, from flagship universities to regionals like Georgia Gwinnett.

"Most pantries are set up to be emergency food access points," said Jaime Hansen, the executive director of Swipe Out Hunger. "They are short-term solutions for a student or anyone in the community."

For that reason, Hansen's ambition runs higher.

She feels the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are out of date. In order for a college student to receive federal SNAP money, they must either be caring for a young child, working at least 20 hours per week, participating in a work-study program, or meeting one of a handful of other exemptions. Students on campus meal plans, however, aren't eligible.

"When SNAP was creating these higher education requirements 30 years ago, tuition was a much smaller percentage of a household income or an individual's income," Hansen said. "So when you were working and going to school, your income level was higher. That's no longer the case."

SEE MORE: Why food halls are the hottest new dining trend in the US

Schools like Georgia Gwinnett are, in part, where this shift plays out. More than 80% of its students qualify for some form of assistance.

As for SNAP, who qualifies has been a sticking point in negotiations over the latest federal farm bill. In its absence, states have stepped up, with 10 passing Swipe Out's Hunger Free Campus legislation, dedicating state money to fight college hunger. Ten more have introduced it.

"The students are the ones raising their hand," Hansen said, "saying, 'We need to advocate for change.'"

Pantries are imperfect. They rely on community donations. They need staff. They need to overcome stigma. They're also where so many turn. In this case, it's where Amani Anderson can stock bags with any number of items for the Georgia Gwinnett shelves, knowing those shelves and those items are there for her too.


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