The “starving student” trope is an old one: A scrappy student carefully calculates how much instant ramen their weekly paycheck will buy … while paying thousands for classes and books.
The hard reality is that as the costs of education and living spiral upward and incomes stagnate, food insecurity is no joke for many college students. Increasingly, local campuses are rallying to fill gaps in food budgets and schedules.
This fall, Whatcom Community College’s Orca Food Pantry moved from several shelves in a sometimes-locked out-of-the-way office to a large room on the main thoroughfare that will be open the same hours the student union.
“Whatcom students are not going to sit in class with that empty feeling in their bellies anymore,” said Associated Students President Josh Norton before cutting the ribbon at the reopening of the Orca Food Pantry on Sept. 22. “Instead, they’re going to come here, they’re going to eat, they’re going to go to class, and they’re going to learn.”
The Orca Food Pantry at WCC isn’t the only effort help hungry students, as staff, students and faculty at colleges across the region have started programs to provide access to food.
Hunger has been a reality for some college students for a long time, but in recent years college students have been identified as a newly at-risk group for food insecurity.
Food insecurity can be as simple as not having enough food to eat. However, it can also mean eating enough calories but not getting enough variety or nutrients, which can cause long-term health issues.
In the United States, about 12% of all households were described as food insecure in 2019, while the first published study about student food insecurity, in 2006, found a rate nearly twice that on a college campus in Hawai’i.
Since then, studies at varying campuses and times have found that between a quarter to more than half of college students are food insecure.
Reasons include more nontraditional students or students from lower-income families attending college, and the declining value of federal grants and wages compared to rapidly increasing cost of tuition and living. Students may also be unable to access food for nonfinancial reasons, such as limited time, transportation or access to culturally appropriate foods.
In Northwest Washington around half of college students are food insecure in some way, according to data from the 2019-20 school year.
In a 2020 survey taken by graduating students at Western Washington University, 50% of respondents said they have been hungry but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money for food at least once in the last month. Forty-seven percent lost weight because there wasn’t enough money for food.
At WCC, a 2020 survey found that 42% of students had experienced food insecurity in the previous month and 65% had experienced either food or housing insecurity or both within the previous year.
With the economic disruption of COVID-19 and subsequent inflation, these rates may have increased since the 2019-20 school year.
Terri Kempton, who works with one of the food pantries at WWU, said that is especially true in Western Washington, as the cost of living has increased even faster than in other areas of the country.
“We’ve just had this wild growth … all the sudden, your groceries cost twice as much as they did six months ago,” she said. “Anyone who is vulnerable, including students, gets hit harder by that than the average upper-middle-class white family in town.”
Faculty, staff and students at every college across the region have seen this struggle and taken steps to help.
At Northwest Indian College, Patrick Doran has taken a community-based approach. As the student wellness coordinator at NWIC, Doran sets up a table each week with bags of meal kits and another with grab-and-go items.
The meal kits are each designed around a particular recipe and have all the groceries needed to make that recipe, along with some general essentials.
The recipes are given to Doran by students and other community members, which he said is a good way to learn what foods people in the community want.
“I’m trying to provide … [food] that’s desirable, not something that’s my impression of what’s good food,” Doran explained.
After he has enough, he plans to put the recipes together into a community cookbook.
The food pantry at NWIC is focused on students but is also open to community members. It currently serves 25 to 30 people per week.
“It’s a bit of a food desert out here,” Doran said, referring to the limited places that sell food in the community and the long trip into town.
Over half of the food for NWIC’s food program comes from a partnership with the Miracle Food Network, which collects surplus food from groceries, convenience stores and restaurants and delivers it to local food banks. Miracle Food Network also provides food to food pantries at WWU and WCC.
At WWU, there are multiple food pantries, each with a slightly different set-up.
WWU’s main food program is the Western Hub of Living Essentials (WHOLE) in the student union building, which has toiletries and other living essentials in addition to food. Unlike the Orca Food Pantry, WHOLE is tucked away, sharing space with other offices on the fourth floor.
Additionally, WWU has at least four other food pantries on campus, according to Kempton and a recent article in The Front.
Having food pantries scattered across WWU’s campus increases access for students with disabilities or whose busy schedules make it hard to travel to WHOLE, at the far north end of campus, said Kempton, who manages the Fairhaven food pantry and the Outback Farm at the opposite end of campus.
Some departments at WWU have also started food pantries for their students, like the small pantry in the journalism and communications department office. It’s a lot easier for students who stay in one building all day for classes to access the food if it’s right there, said Jennifer Bettis, who stocked that pantry last year when she worked as the department’s administrative services manager.
Representatives of Skagit Valley College and Bellingham Technical College didn’t respond to interview inquiries, but each has programs to help food-insecure students.
Awareness and change
Programs to help students struggling with food insecurity have existed for a long time, but how students and colleges think about them are changing.
Increased acceptance and awareness of the problem has also helped programs to support hungry students gain resources and normalcy.
“Twenty years ago, someone in the [Fairhaven] office set up a little shame drawer in the bottom of a filing cabinet in the back of corner of the building,” Kempton said. “Tell me how you feel about free food without telling me how you feel about free food, y’know?”
Now, it is impossible to visit the Fairhaven Commons without seeing the colorful food pantry stocked with fresh food from the Outback Farm right across from the main office.
For a long time, being food insecure was not something people talked about, but now 81% of respondents to WWU’s 2020 graduation survey said they would be comfortable using a food pantry.
“We’re in a very different era,” Kempton said. “It’s like, ‘hey, do you want to swing by the food bank on the way home?’ “
At the time the Orca Food Pantry was started, there weren’t any similar food pantries at colleges in the area to look at for guidance.
Former WCC student Jackie Rumble was excited to see how the Orca Food Pantry has grown since she helped start it in 2015.
Heidi Farani, director of student life at WCC, said they wanted to make the space as inviting as possible to lessen the stigma of using a food pantry, and that there are plans to use the space for classes on nutrition or cooking classes.
“It’s comforting to know that the schools got you in this way, it’s like a safety net,” Dakshayini Kasinathan, health and wellness coordinator for associated students at WCC, who will be responsible for managing much of the Orca Food Pantry on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s so cool to see this,” Rumble said. “I don’t know the students who are involved now, but they’ve done a really great job.”
— Reported by Sadie Fick
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