All posts by Talia Berday Sacks

Are college meal plans to blame for campus hunger?

At Virginia Tech University, the cheapest meal plan option for students living on campus is $1,674, which equals about 10 meals a week. At Brown University, a meal plan that provides 7 meals a week for the entire academic year costs nearly $4,000.

It’s not news to us that meal plans range in cost and the number of meals provided. What is surprising to learn is that being enrolled in a meal plan does not eliminate the threat of food insecurity. In a recent survey of 26 four-year colleges and universities, 43% of students with meal plans still experienced food insecurity.

It’s common for colleges to require first year students who live on-campus to purchase meal plans. For many freshmen, living together and going to the dining hall with their peers is a formative part of their social lives. Requiring students to buy meal plans, is of course, great for colleges because housing and meal plans generate revenue.

Today, only 13% of undergraduates live on campus. This seems like a small number, but we can’t ignore that even seemingly “traditional” college students can include students who carefully ration out meals each week, run out of dining points, and turn to friends for help.

Innovative solutions for helping these students have emerged in the past few years. Check out the organization Swipe Out Hunger, which has established systems for students to donate leftover or extra dining points to other students who need them. Systems like theirs provide immediate food assistance to needy students right away. The Campus Hunger Project aims to spread awareness of resources like Swipe’s that students can turn to for help, and longer-term, to advocate for policies that don’t force students to choose between a college degree and their basic needs.
Way to go CfH at Stanford and CfH at Occidental! Two student leaders from these chapters conducted campus interviews with an Assistant Dean and Director of Financial Aid.

Other big news: 27 CfH student leaders are gathering in LA and the Bay Area this November to participate in workshops about the Campus Hunger Project led by CfH and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger staff.

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Look Outside the Classroom

Who besides students and professors are on a college campus every day? Employees. Universities employ anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of workers.

We got an important wake up call this week when the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College released a survey on food insecurity among employees in the University of California system. The UC system is the 3rd largest employer in the state and employs over 14,000 clerical, administrative and support workers. As their survey shows, more than 2/3 of these workers can’t afford to buy adequate food and are considered food insecure.

It’s important to remember that campus hunger can affect any member of the campus community, from the students sitting inside lecture rooms to the administrative staff working in the office next door.

Why do so many UC employees struggle to afford adequate food? One variable is the high cost of living in many of the counties where the 10 campuses of the UC system are located.

We’ve delved into this issue in previous Campus Hunger Project updates. The competing priorities of paying for rent, mortgages, transportation, utilities, and food force people to choose between covering their basic needs and other urgent expenses.

Now that we know that food insecurity exists on such a widespread level at one of the nation’s largest university systems, we won’t be surprised if similar reports start to come out. This is not an issue in California alone.  

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Student leaders from CfH at University of Massachusetts-Amherst discuss the Campus Hunger Project and strategies for teaching their volunteers about campus hunger.

In the past week, student leaders from CfH at Northwestern pledged their support for this project and a student leader from CfH at Brandeis University conducted an interview with her Office of Financial Aid.

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FLIP the Conversation

Please be advised that this video includes references to the extreme measures students are taking due to hunger

You might think that a college student struggling to pay tuition or rent would first ask their family for help. As the video shows, this isn’t always the case. Many low-income college students and students who are the first person in their families to attend college (first-generation) in fact feel a sense of debt and responsibility for their parents. They have far different college experiences than their wealthier peers, even with something as basic as food. A new survey released last week found that food insecurity is more prevalent among first-generation students than students whose parents did attend college, with 56% of first-generation students experiencing food insecurity compared to 45% of their peers with at least one parent who attended college.

The Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) is the student group behind this week’s video, and the posts read aloud are from an online forum Columbia University students started called “College Confessions.” Because the forum is anonymous, the students featured in the video are reading aloud the words of their peers.

Students at other Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Brown followed suit. Now there are several “College Confessions” pages where students anonymously post about experiencing poverty, food and housing insecurity, and dealing with social stigma from their peers.

Personal stories like posts on College Confession are crucial for publicizing some of the many issues that college students face. Help us reduce the stigma of this “hidden hunger” by sharing some of these stories.

As new research is published, we’re especially proud of our CfH chapters that are educating their peers about this issue. This week, two more CfH chapters at University of Pittsburgh and Washington University of St. Louis pledged their support. Additionally, two student leaders from CfH at Penn State University held interviews with the Office of Student Affairs and Office of Student Aid to learn about hunger on their individual campuses.

Check out the latest action alert from the Campus Hunger Project. 
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Breaking the Silence

When we discussed the Campus Hunger Project with our Challah for Hunger leaders earlier this year, students were often surprised to learn about this issue. We weren’t surprised, and after reading Paul’s story, you’ll understand why. Broadcasting stories about college food insecurity to our personal and larger networks is necessary to reduce the stigma around this issue.

Not all students are as willing to talk as Paul was. Two years after his story was published, there are still food insecure college students who report not only feeling anxious about their financial struggles, but also uncomfortable disclosing their struggle to friends.

An anonymous 21 year old at Pennsylvania State University expressed this concern:“I like to provide for myself…[it]’s the worst feeling you can think of to ask for somebody’s help in your time of struggle.”

The good news is that more college students are breaking the silence. They’re starting to talk publicly about their experiences with hunger and how feelings of shame or isolation prevented them from reaching out for help. By cultivating greater awareness, we can start to build a stronger, more empathetic support network for our students.

Check out the latest action alert from the Campus Hunger Project. 
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Coping with Food Insecurity

Toni Airaksinen (quoted in image) is a Barnard College student and advocate for low-income and first generation college students. She’s written about students who have passed out because of hunger, skipped or cut down on meals, and borrowed money from friends for food.

The cost of tuition and living expenses is a huge factor for students deciding where to attend college. It’s vital they have accurate estimates of the expenses they should expect to pay. This made it all the more shocking when we learned that students can’t depend upon colleges for basic information like the cost of attendance.

The federal definition of the “cost of attendance” (COA) includes the costs of tuition, fees, books, supplies and living expenses like food and rent. However, a recent study of how colleges and universities define COA revealed a significant gap between their estimates and standard cost measures that account for location-specific differences. (For example, average rent and food costs vary tremendously from city to city.)Researchers found that compared to cost measures that take into account these differences, 1/3 of colleges provide families with COA estimates that are off by at least $3,000.

60% of college students that begin a degree graduate within 6 years. For these students, paying a few hundred dollars more a month than they budgeted means cutting other costs like food and books. No one should be forced to make this choice.

Check out the latest action alert from the Campus Hunger Project. 
Sign up to become an advocate today!