I never thought that I would use a food pantry, but my first year in seminary changed that. I came to campus with barely enough money for a few school supplies and a meager pantry. It was embarrassing and I honestly thought I was the only one who needed help. My family was unable to help and I was anxious how I would survive the school year. On the day of orientation there was a bunch of announcements, but one in particular gave me a sense of belonging. There was an announcement about a food pantry on campus, where everyone was welcome. At first I was embarrassed as I walked toward the empty gym, but then I saw my classmates smiling and asking if I had enough for the week. There was no shame or stigma, just the honesty of our situation as students.
In recent years, college and graduate students are becoming the new face of food insecurity in the United States. The stigma usually associated with food and higher education is the weight gain associated with the glibly titled “freshman fifteen” (a fact in my experience), but now students have a different worry: how am I going to pay for food this week?
A study done at Western Oregon University found that 59% of students were categorized as food insecure. Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as, “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” There could be many reasons for students to be vulnerable to food insecurity for instance, rising tuition costs, not qualifying for food stamps, cost of living, or the shifting demographic of students that come from low income groups or are first generation children of immigrants. The 2008 recession was also a significant factor for many students.
The consequences for students facing food insecurity are steep. They include links to depression and lower academic performance, because how can you focus on a test when you are unsure of where your next meal is coming from?
Many campuses have started to respond to this reality through relief programs. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, there were nearly 200 food pantries or banks for students across the country by August 2015. Yet there is also a great deal of stigma surrounding hunger, so students are hesitant to talk about it. Although I had a great deal of support from my school and I confided in close family, this is the first time I am publically acknowledging my food insecurity. Aware of this, some campuses have developed new models of pantries to alleviate stigma. There are also programs that allow students to donate unused “swipes” of their meal cards to fellow students or other members of the community.
In a parable from Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that when we feed one another, we are also feeding him. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40b). When I was given that first handful of food from one of my peers, I was overjoyed that I would be fed and I was comforted that my community was helping to feed me.
To learn more about starting a campus food pantry, see this handy guide from the Oregon Food Bank.
To learn more about swipe programs, see Swipe Out Hunger.
Look for a post on our blog next week about the Campus Kitchens Project, a partner of ELCA World Hunger!
Elyssa Salinas is the program assistant for hunger education with ELCA World Hunger. She can be reached at Hunger@ELCA.org.