Classes, all-night study sessions, research papers and exams, and extracurricular activities and social events are all commonly thought of as making up the college experience. Hunger and homelessness are not.
And yet, statistics from the recent study, “Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students,” reveal food and housing insecurity is growing at an alarming rate on college campuses.
Students from Troy University joined other college students from throughout Alabama on Feb. 24 at TROY’s Montgomery Campus to learn about the issues and what can be done on campuses to provide services to help fellow students in need. The free event, Hungry for Justice Student Poverty and Hunger Summit, was presented by Troy University’s Office of Civic Engagement in conjunction with Alabama Possible, a statewide non-profit organization that works to reduce systemic poverty in Alabama.
According to the study, which analyzed responses from nearly 3,800 students from 34 community colleges and four-year institutions in 12 states, 48 percent of students faced food insecurity in the previous month, with 22 percent reporting “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.” Fifteen percent of food insecure students reported experiencing some form of homelessness in the past 12 months.
Clare Cady, director and co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, said many universities haven’t recognized the complexity of the problem.
“It isn’t that universities don’t want to recognize it, but they have to open up their minds to recognize these problems do exist and need to be addressed,” Cady said. “There also exists a societal norm that blames people for their homelessness or poverty or food insecurity.”
The problems often go unaddressed for a variety of reasons.
“Do I really want my campus tagged as having these problems or having these people enrolled? If we do address it, what are the risk management issues? How do we even approach students about this? Those are some of the questions university administrators often consider when dealing with these issues, and as a result, there is often no action taken,” Cady said.
While the statistics were surprising to some TROY students in attendance, the need to address the matter has not been lost thanks to programs such as the University’s Campus Kitchens and Backpacks for Kids programs.
“I gained a lot of awareness because I never really knew there was so much hunger and poverty right around me in plain sight,” said Emily Anderson, a senior biology major from Enterprise. “You don’t really think about college students dealing with hunger and poverty. You think they have it all figured out because they are able to find a way to pay for school, but there is a lot that you just don’t know.”
Anderson said she hoped that she and her fellow students would take the lessons learned from the summit and not let the motivation to act wane.
“I hope that we will take this information and look for ways to apply it to make things better,” she said.
Breann Gentry, a mother of two who is working two jobs while attending classes on the Montgomery Campus, said she could certainly identify with the issues of food and housing insecurity.
“I have a passion for learning and addressing food insecurity and housing insecurity, particularly because I’m in a situation right now where I am facing housing insecurity myself, as a college student,” Gentry said. “There are a lot of non-traditional students that go to school here on the Montgomery Campus. I’m one of them. Working, parenting and going to school – it is a lot of stress on people. It would be a huge help to have a place that you can go to get help with all of things that you face as a non-traditional student.”
Markeya Taylor, a senior applied computer science major at the Montgomery Campus, said events such as Hungry for Justice help to raise awareness about the issues of hunger and poverty.
“I’m a senior, so I’m almost done with school but the road through has been a little bit harder than most would think it should be in 2017,” she said. “Financial aid doesn’t cover everything. I’m not currently in a situation where I have to worry about my housing security, but food insecurity can touch everyone. I wanted to learn something new about how I can help make things better for others who are going through difficult situations.”
Taylor believes the stigma attached to poverty or food and housing insecurity is one of the obstacles to more being done to help alleviate the problem.
“As college students, you are trying to make it day to day so that you can reach a point where you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or where you will lay your head at night,” she said. “I think a lot of people want to think that these things aren’t issues today because there are resources available but not everyone can get to shelters or places to take advantage of those services. It is definitely something worth knowing about.”