COLUMBUS, Ohio - Jokes about starving college students relying on ramen noodles, rice and other cheap foods are no laughing matter, as recent research uncovers the broad scope of campus hunger.
In a survey released by Temple University, 45% of student respondents said they had been food insecure in the past month, meaning they were unsure of the source of their next meal.
Marisa Vernon White, associate provost, enrollment management and student success at Lorain County Community College, explains increased access to higher education means more students entering college with unique situations.
"We have this image in our mind of the college student who's living in a residence hall who has a food plan, whose parents are sending them money on the weekends," she states. "And that's just not necessarily the case."
Lorain County Community College offers The Commodore Cupboard food pantry for students and community members.
Otterbein University in Westerville also offers similar assistance through its The Promise House, where Americorps VISTA member Jaymi Green works with volunteers and students.
"It's hard to study when you're hungry," she states. "It's hard to keep yourself motivated and stay up later to finish a paper if you are just constantly thinking, 'My stomach is grumbling, I'm hungry, I haven't eaten today.'"
Of those surveyed, 7% of two-year students and 5% of four-year students skipped eating for a full day because they couldn't afford food.
At least a dozen Ohio universities and community colleges have food pantries.
The average cost for a full year tuition at a public university is roughly $25,000.
Stacey Rusterholz, assistant director for community engagement with The Promise House at Otterbein University, notes that while hunger is more common among students from low-income families, the price tag of higher education is also a factor.
"College is really expensive even if you have tuition discounts or scholarships there's a lot of additional costs that go with college, whether its books or food or organizational fees, things like that," she states.
At Lorain County Community College Sarah Hyde-Pinner is coordinator for the Commodore Cupboard Food Pantry. She adds that food assistance is also available during the summer months for students and their families.
"You see an uptick in summer from students who are parents who have school age children at home who may not be getting lunch at school and they may get connected with summer feeding programs but there is still a gap in what they need."
Colleges and universities in Ohio are exploring ways to respond to hunger on campus and break down barriers to student success.
Melissa Gilbert is associate dean of Experimental Learning with The Promise House at Otterbein University, just one of roughly a dozen food pantries on Ohio college campuses. She explained college hunger highlights the broader issue of food justice.
"Our hope is that we never need a pantry again. And we need to find a solution to that," Gilbert said. "Pantries are a Band-Aid approach but they're a necessity, and we've got to have something to make sure nobody shows up to class hungry or is studying for an exam and hasn't eaten in 24 hours."
Solutions include increased access to food stamps for college students, as well as ensuring every student has a meal plan.
At the Commodore Cupboard at Lorain County Community College, coordinator Sarah Hyde Pinner said reducing stigma is also key. And their Champions Program trains students and staff on food insecurity.
"What they can do, how this is actionable; how a faculty member could make a strong referral in a way that respects the dignity of all of the folks who are in this situation," Hyde said.
Colleges and universities around Ohio are fighting student hunger with food drives, community gardens, and fundraisers. Some also recover unused food from cafeterias and private events to be donated elsewhere, or offer end of semester meal plan swaps so students can donate unused meal credits to others.
Stacey Rusterholz, assistant director for Community Engagement with The Promise House, said they also offer peer advocacy, volunteer opportunities and educational workshops. And they connect students to community financial supports, mental health counseling and clothing.
"The goal is to help students be successful and be able to graduate college, because finances are one the things that cause students to drop out," Rusterholz said. "So just having a center that's inclusive and welcoming is really important to helping our students be successful and to graduate. "
The Commodore Cupboard offers similar services and partners with the Women's Link program, which connects students to housing services, legal aid, childcare and emergency loans. Marisa Vernon White, associate provost at Lorain County Community College, said the programs will join in the fall to better serve students.
"They may say that they're going to access that service but then feel embarrassed about doing so, or struggle to find the time to do so," White said. "So by putting those two things under the same roof, it's really going to allow us to look at their situation much more holistically and line them up with some other things that they may not have considered."
She added their work doesn't go unnoticed, as some students who have utilized the food pantry have returned after graduation and paid it forward through donations.
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