Food scholarships. Homeless shelters. Emergency loans.

With no federal help in sight, colleges scramble to confront the growing crisis of hungry, homeless students

One of the first lessons Jalyn Wharton learned her freshman year at Kennesaw State University was how to stretch a pizza so it would feed her for a week. It wasn’t the only time she’d had to ration food. When she was in high school, her family became homeless and Wharton would sometimes eat less to make sure her younger siblings got enough. Even as her family bounced between hotels and friends’ houses, Wharton stayed focused on school. Everyone told her education was her path out of poverty. She finished high school with honors and was thrilled to get into Kennesaw State, a research institution with 35,000 students near Atlanta, Georgia. 

It was a relief to finally start college, Wharton says, but there were new obstacles. “I wasn’t really a resident here, or a resident of anywhere,” she says. Because she’d had no permanent address while her family was homeless, she couldn’t prove that she qualified for in-state tuition or a state scholarship. She couldn’t afford books or campus housing, which started at about $600 a month for a room, so she moved into a cheap hotel. Her family, now living in Indiana, pulled together enough money to pay for the room and to have a large pizza delivered once a week. “I was trying to remain positive, because this is what I needed to do to get where I want to go. This will help me stop the cycle of poverty, ” Wharton says. She was scared to admit how much she was struggling, and felt pressure to set a good example for her siblings. So she told herself: “You’re just going to tough this out.”

Wharton felt alone, but it has become clear in recent years that’s she’s no outlier; in fact, food insecurity and housing instability are defining factors of today’s college experience for a significant number of students. A recent survey of nearly 86,000 students found that 45 percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to food. Fifty-six percent had been housing insecure in the previous year — that is, they were unable to pay full rent, lived in overcrowded conditions or experienced other instability. Seventeen percent had been homeless at some point during the year. Despite a lack of representative national data, the evidence has continued to mount, and a steady stream of news stories has documented what it looks like on the ground: Students sleeping in airports and in their cars; taking “hunger naps” when they can’t afford to eat; trading tips on how to keep their homework dry when living in the woods.

The problem is complex and multifaceted: College tuition and living costs continue to rise; state investment in public higher education has fallen, pushing more costs onto students; and the Pell Grant — the most important source of federal aid for low-income undergrads — has essentially flatlined. An increasing share of college students come from poor families, but the higher education system, from campus policies to financial aid, is not designed with them in mind. “We have been doing a better job of making sure low-income children feel like college is a place for them,” said Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Poverty Law Center in California. “Maybe so much so that it’s a real shock when they get here and find out that it isn’t.” 

Kennesaw State senior Jalyn Wharton, whose family was homeless when she was younger, was scared to admit how much she was struggling at college. Then she met Marcy Stidum.

Solving the problem will require the federal government to knit together social safety net programs with higher education policy — in essence overhauling the national approach to higher education in light of these new realities.

Given the extreme partisanship on Capitol Hill, such comprehensive change seems unlikely anytime soon. And the Trump administration’s record on both safety-net programs and  education is perverse. To cite just a few examples: In July the administration introduced a plan to tighten food stamp eligibility that would purge 3.1 million people from the rolls, and deny nearly a million K-12 students automatic access to free school meals. The administration has also proposed massive cuts to higher education, though these have been blocked by Congress. It’s had more luck rolling back regulation of for-profit colleges, which tend to target low-income and minority students and have low graduation rates. Too often, their students end up in the worst possible situation — no degree and a pile of debt.

In the absence of leadership from Congress and the White House, a patchwork response to the problem of student hunger and homelessness is taking shape on campuses and in state legislatures across the country, from meal vouchers and emergency loans to help with food stamp applications. These efforts can’t solve the problem, but they are helping to make the college experience more manageable for thousands of students like Jalyn Wharton at Kennesaw State.

As Wharton hustled to pay for classes and feed herself, back in Indiana her mother tried to help. She urged Wharton to get in touch with a woman she’d heard of called “Miss Marcy” who ran an office on campus that could sort things out. Wharton balked. “I didn’t want to talk about my living situation or my home situation or anything,” she says. “Because people go” — here, she lowers her voice and widens her eyes in a pantomime of concern — “‘How are you? Are you okay?’” 

Marcy Stidum started the CARE Services at Kennesaw State after she realized the toll that poverty was taking not just on students’ ability to get an education, but on their overall health. Courtesy of KSU Strategic Communications.

But her mother prevailed and soon Wharton found herself sitting with Marcy Stidum, a social worker who has been helping homeless and hungry students at Kennesaw State for most of the last eight years. Stidum, a hugger with an unflappable demeanor, gave Wharton groceries and toiletries, and pulled strings to get her a room on campus and reclassified as an in-state student. “She helped me get my feet on the ground,” Wharton says, adding that without Stidum’s help she doubts she would have made it through the first semester. 

This was not what Stidum imagined when she came to Kennesaw State in 2010. She was hired as a mental health case manager, but soon after arriving, an administrator asked her to see what she could do for a student who had lost her housing and was struggling in class.

“At first, it was just: Help Penelope,” Stidum says. But more students like Penelope [not her real name] kept coming, and Stidum began to see the toll that poverty was taking not just on their ability to get an education, but on their overall health. She watched one student deteriorate physically and emotionally after losing her housing; another girl contemplated suicide. Stidum realized that the problem was much broader than she had imagined. It wasn’t a matter of helping a student or two who had fallen on hard times; she needed to create something more formal, with a broader reach. 

In 2013, Stidum started Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services where students can now get anything from groceries to help with a security deposit to a spot in one of the two campus apartments the university reserves for homeless students. The center, which has served more than 1,700 students, has an annual budget of more than $160,000, and Stidum has raised another $250,000 to support students since starting the program.

When Stidum began this work, she was shocked that so many undergraduates were struggling to feed and house themselves. “I didn’t get it,” she says. “I was like, ‘How can they not have anyone?’” 

No one has done more to answer that question, and highlight possible solutions, than Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she is a professor of higher education policy and sociology. For the last several years, Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues have conducted major assessments of food and housing insecurity — or basic needs security, as many in the field call it — among college students. 

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology and higher education policy at Temple, is evaluating many of the campus programs that deal with hunger and homelessness. Courtesy of Pat Robinson Photography.

Initially, Goldrick-Rab focused on college affordability and financial aid. But, like Stidum, she soon realized that the problem required a holistic approach. “These are systemic issues and they have something to do with financial aid, but they also have something to do with things like the Farm Bill,” she says, referring to the omnibus legislation renewed every five years that governs U.S. food and agricultural policy — everything from food stamps to farm subsidies. “We want to work at the intersection of social policies and higher education policies and practices, because that’s where students are falling between the cracks.”

Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues are evaluating a range of responses to the problem of student homelessness and hunger being tried across the country. They also organize an event, the #RealCollege Annual Convening, at which students, administrators, researchers, and policymakers share ideas and discuss strategy. 

But the fact is, there isn’t a lot of evidence yet of what works, given the new-ness of the initiatives and the piecemeal way in which they’ve grown. 

Food pantries are often the first step colleges take. More than 700 campus food pantries are now part of the College & University Food Bank Alliance, a group that provides support and training, up from just 15 in 2012. The Swipe Out Hunger program, now present on more than 80 campuses, lets students with meal plans donate unused credits, or swipes, to hungry peers. Some colleges use apps and social media to alert students when there is leftover food after an event. Students at the University of California, Los Angeles, started a homeless shelter.

Much of the response has centered around trying to expand students’ access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) the country’s largest anti-hunger program, which was formerly known as food stamps. The program actually expressly excludes college students, no matter how low their income, unless they can meet certain exemptions such as working at least 20 hours a week, caring for a child under age 6, or taking part in a work-study program. But even many students who do meet these criteria aren’t getting the help they’re entitled to. According to a Government Accountability Office report published last winter, some 1.8 million students –- or nearly 60 percent of those who are potentially eligible — didn’t get SNAP benefits in 2016.

Many campus food pantries and resource centers, like CARE Services, are now helping students sign up for SNAP benefits. The University of California, Berkeley runs twice-weekly clinics on campus where students can apply for CalFresh (as SNAP is called in California), rather than having to trek to a county office or do a phone interview. A number of colleges across the country are also trying to make it possible for students to use their SNAP benefits at campus stores. And a new California law should make it easier for students to buy prepared foods using SNAP. Typically, those benefits can only be used for groceries, not for cooked foods; but for students who don’t have kitchens, or who go to colleges that aren’t near grocery stores, or who live in their cars, that isn’t much help. 

Still, increasing student access to SNAP is no panacea, says Ellen Vollinger, the Legal/Food Stamp director at the Food Research & Action Center, a national antihunger group based in Washington D.C. “SNAP benefits are so meager that even when we can open up access to the program, whether it’s to needy college students or others who need assistance, we’re still dealing with a benefit of about $4 a person a day.”

Schools also are working with nonprofits and state agencies in innovative ways, Goldrick-Rab says. In Texas, students at Houston Community College can get “food scholarships” — bags of groceries twice a month — through a partnership with the Houston Food Bank. In Tacoma, Washington, the public housing authority provides housing to nearly 300 homeless students enrolled at Tacoma Community College and the University of Washington, Tacoma. 

Student volunteer Annemarie Todaro helps stock the shelves and count inventory at the CARE food pantry at Kennesaw State University.

The Hope Center at Temple is currently evaluating the programs in Houston and Tacoma to see how they affect grades and graduation rates. A more limited pilot of the Tacoma program had encouraging results: 60 percent of the participating students graduated or remained in school after two years, compared to 16 percent of a control group. And those who got help had an average GPA of 3.05, compared with 2.75 for those who did not. 

Goldrick-Rab says more colleges should consider these sorts of partnerships. “We are trying to demonstrate that it can be done, to measure the impact and then think about how you would scale that both across more colleges but also into policy change,” she says.

Centers like the one at Kennesaw State University are now in place at a number of colleges, including Amarillo College in Texas and Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts. Vanessa Coca, the Hope Center’s assistant director of research, says the upside of programs like this is that students have a single office where they can get help with a variety of issues, from childcare to housing to healthcare. An evaluation of a similar one-stop-shop program, called Single Stop, at Bunker Hill and in three other community college systems, found that first-semester students who used the services were more likely to go on to second and third semesters than those who did not. 

The boost Wharton got at CARE Services, in the fall of 2014, helped her get straight A’s. Still, she couldn’t relax. She was so used to living transiently that she never unpacked, and she was terrified of being homeless again. So in addition to her work-study position, she took a job at a deli. Her schedule was punishing, but she was proud to be able to send money to her mom and siblings back in Indiana. Yet those new earnings meant she no longer qualified for food stamps. So she took a third job, at a hotel, to afford food. This meant Wharton was working 45 hours a week, on top of a full course load and a double major. 

She had little time to study and her grades suffered. One day she called her mother in tears. “I’m going to school, but I’m getting dumber!” she sobbed. She fantasized about quitting, but her mom always talked her out of it. Eventually, Wharton decided a double-major was too much, under the circumstances, so she dropped chemistry and stuck with accounting. She cut back to just the work-study job during the school year, and tried to offset the lost income by saving money over the summer. She says she’s not food insecure, exactly, but that she and her friends are still often close to it at times. To get by, she stretches $50 for two weeks, skipping meals and eating a lot of noodles. “Pasta fills the hole,” she said. “It’s difficult trying to decide what’s more important, my education or taking care of myself, because it’s almost an either-or.”

The conversation about the role of college in America is changing — among the public, and even among policymakers, says Jessica Thompson, director of policy and planning at The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit that works on college affordability issues. Thompson sees increasing “blowback” to the high costs and staggering student loan burdens. “We’ve got presidential candidates feeling like they have to have policy proposals — big, expensive policy proposals — on this issue, and that’s a huge shift,” she says. 

Indeed, the top three Democratic contenders, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, have all outlined higher-education plans that include proposals to help poor students pay for food, housing and other basic needs by increasing federal aid and allowing it to be used for non-tuition expenses.

And there are bills in Congress designed to address many of these issues. The EATS Act, introduced in September by Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat, would change SNAP rules so that students who are attending college could qualify for benefits, as long as their incomes are low enough, without having to meet other exemptions. Advocates are also excited about California Rep. Adam Schiff’s Food for Thought Act, which would create a pilot program allowing community colleges to provide free meals to food-insecure students. If adopted, it could be a first step toward expanding the national school lunch program to colleges, a dream of many anti-hunger advocates, including Goldrick-Rab. 

An inventory list for the food pantry at Kennesaw State. In six years, Marcy Stidum has raised $250,000 for student services, in addition to the money it gets from the university.

But Thompson is quick to add that it’s still hard to envision the government taking the kind of major action needed to address the problem comprehensively anytime soon. “When will we see an actual large-scale effort federally and at the state level to reverse course? It’s really still an open question.”

What is clear, she says, is that if the nation wants to close the persistent gaps in inequality and educational attainment, the system must account for the financial vulnerability of people who want to get an education. “We can’t ignore these students anymore,” Thompson says.

Until that happens, too many students will overcome huge odds to get to college, only to find the promises made about higher education ring hollow. As Carolyn Tinoco, a master’s student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who scrubbed toilets and ate from the food pantry to get through college, put it: “You’re selling me the American dream, but you’re really just dangling it in my face.”

Lead image: Student volunteer Jasmine London works at the food pantry at Kennesaw State University, just outside of Atlanta. More than 700 campus food pantries are now part of the College & University Food Bank Alliance, a group that provides support and training, up from just 15 in 2012.

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