Tackling Student Hunger
Having so much good food, grown locally, is one thing. Affording it can be another.
According to Humboldt State’s official estimated costs of living, food and housing take up the biggest portion of a student’s budget after tuition. So it makes sense that students often look at these expenses to carve out savings. Sadly, some students reach a point where there are no good choices, and their health and ability to learn can suffer.
“The food budget is the most flexible part of the budget. You can save money there and it’s not going to change whether you can go to class,” says Mira Friedman, a health educator at HSU who says she’s noticed a growing trend among students and a lack of food.
Being a poor, starving college student subsisting on a diet of instant noodles has often been thought of as a right of passage, says Friedman. It’s an image that’s endured for decades. “But that wasn’t right then, and it’s not right for our students,” she says.
HSU is addressing the issue of hunger among students with the Oh SNAP! project—a service for students that connects them to food resources like the local farmers’ markets and state food assistance, and even operates a food pantry on campus where students can grab free healthy food. It’s an effort that complements the research and policy advocacy work being done by many faculty and students.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT of Agriculture classifies people who are struggling to afford their next meal as “food insecure” (see Defining Food Security). Food security exists on a spectrum, so someone with full cupboards would be “food secure.”
In 2015, Social Work Professors Jennifer Maguire and Marissa O’Neill and Psychology Professor Chris Aberson surveyed 1,504 HSU students to determine their state of food and housing security. The results were surprising.
More than half of the students said they had experienced low food security (30 percent) or very low food security (23 percent). Forty percent of the students were cutting the size of meals or skipping them entirely because they didn’t have enough money for food. Most of the same students reported skipping meals between five and 20 days a month.
Having access to adequate nutrition is very important to students’ well-being, according to Maguire. “Emerging evidence points to direct links between our students’ ability to access nutritious foods and to successfully navigate stresses of studying, home life, and working to afford school,” she says.
The situation is similarly concerning at the national level. In December, researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan released findings from a survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 community colleges across the nation. They found that half of all respondents were struggling to get enough food. Twenty-eight percent cut the size of their meals or skipped meals at least once, and 22 percent did so on at least three out of the last 30 days.
AT HUMBOLDT STATE, multiple efforts to make sure students are fed are bundled together as the Oh SNAP! Campus Food Programs. Oh SNAP! takes its name from SNAP benefits, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is run by the USDA and was formerly called food stamps. It was a 2013 project to connect students to food assistance programs that served as the basis for Oh SNAP!
That year, HSU’s Department of Social Work was awarded funding by the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services to raise the awareness of CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP benefits.
The next year HSU opened the student-driven Oh SNAP! Food Pantry. In opening the pantry, Humboldt State became one of the 339 members of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which tracks student food assistance programs across the country. Oh SNAP! is supported by funds from HSU alumni, private donors, and various campus groups and departments.
Located in the Recreation & Wellness Center, the pantry is a welcoming place where there’s always a fresh pot of coffee or hot chocolate. The food—stocked and organized by student assistants—is purchased locally and often includes nutritious bulk foods like lentils, canned fruits and vegetables, beans, pasta, and more.
The Oh SNAP! program also works with a local professional chef to teach students to prepare meals using items gathered at the food pantry. “We can provide an educational component. So it’s not just that you’re getting some zucchini, but you’re learning how to use it in a meal,” says Friedman.
The food pantry sees plenty of use. Student assistants Navor Resurreccion and Analysia Limon say the pantry’s large cupboards are usually empty within a week of restocking. “When you see how many people we’ve helped it really clicks. Day to day it can feel like you’re not doing much, but we are helping more than 1,000 people a semester,” says Limon.
IN ITS FIRST year, more than 1,200 students used the pantry for a total of over 2,500 visits. In the 2015-16 academic year, more than 1,500 students used the pantry with over 4,000 visits.
The pantry is also a social hub. “A lot of students come to hang out and talk. Students need to create a family away from theirs. The food pantry goes a long way toward creating community and reducing the stigma of using services like the pantry,” says Resurreccion, who has long been interested in food issues and worked with a food resource program in junior college that redistributed leftover food from farmers markets to students.
The Oh SNAP! program also runs a free farm stand with produce from Earthly Edibles, a local organic farm.
In February, Humboldt State became one of the country’s first universities to begin accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer cards from the USDA. The card, which operates just like a debit or credit card, issues monthly SNAP benefits that can be used to buy groceries like vegetables, fruits, canned food, and freezer items from the College Creek Marketplace.
Having the option to use CalFresh on campus is a step in the right direction, but as it stands there are still significant hurdles for students to jump before qualifying for those benefits, according to Maguire.
COLLEGE STUDENTS IN California are unlikely to qualify for food assistance programs because of conflicting state and federal requirements about the amount of work students must do each week.
According to federal guidelines set by the USDA, qualified student applicants must take part in a work-study financial aid program, maintaining a 20-hour per week workload. Meanwhile, California only requires that students qualify for a work-study financial aid program—not actually take part—to qualify for CalFresh.
Maguire and Heather King (’15, Social Work), M.S.W., are working to address the difference in requirements.
In a recent white paper based on King’s community project, she and Maguire recommend a revision of federal SNAP rules to align with CalFresh requirements and that college financial aid counselors become one of the first stops where potentially eligible students learn about food assistance programs. The paper also suggests that colleges work with social services providers to streamline the application process for applying to food programs. Together, making these changes would go a long way toward helping more students get the food they need.
It’s all part of the effort to make sure Humboldt State can meet the needs of its students, says Friedman. “We’re nurturing students’ minds and bodies so they can be academically successful. We want our students to be well in a holistic way, which goes beyond just getting good grades.”
Defining Food Security
No reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
One or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
Reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
HSU Oh SNAP! Food Programs at a Glance
Open daily. Students can stop by once a week and pick up essential groceries.
Assistance applying for CalFresh benefits at the food pantry.
Free seasonal produce from a local farm delivered weekly.
Cooking Demos & Recipes
Weekly cooking demonstrations feature a local chef sharing simple, nutritious recipes.
Oh SNAP! App
Text alerts (starting Fall 2016) for new or limited-availability pantry products.
Research and Advocacy
Surveys and reports are available for download at hsuohsnap.org.
You can help.
Through HSU’s “Food For Thought” Campaign, alumni and others have contributed about $56,000 to fight student hunger. Click “support” at humboldt.edu/foodforthought