Leslie Argueta is a 21-year-old first-generation college student at Goodwin University who plans to work with children and families in need.
It’s a profession for which her own life experience has prepared her. When Argueta was 3, she emigrated from El Salvador with her family, settling in East Hartford. In Argueta’s first year of college, a car accident left her mother unable to work for a year, forcing the young college student to divide her time between her studies and hospital visits. “Me and my brother had to provide a little bit more for our family,” Argueta said.
With grocery money limited, Argueta explored local resources and discovered that Goodwin University had a food pantry on campus. Now, the college student, who will earn a degree in human services this December, works there part-time and continues to supplement her grocery needs from its shelves weekly.
“I love it,” Argueta said. “They provide you with goods: cold and frozen foods, fresh fruit and vegetables.”
While Argueta’s maturity in addressing her experience with food insecurity may be unusual for a college student, the problem among this demographic is not. Recent surveys report that at least one in three college students nationwide faces food insecurity, according to Swipe Out Hunger, a national advocacy nonprofit. Yet, alarming as these statistics seem, experts suggest they may be conservative, especially since the pandemic when many college students like Argueta lost part-time jobs or funding sources from families that helped keep them financially solvent.
As awareness of food insecurity among college students is increasing, so are efforts to combat the problem. About a decade ago, just 88 of the nation’s college campuses offered an on-campus food pantry; today, that number has reached at least 700, according to a recent report by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which has since merged with Swipe Out Hunger. A glimpse of how some local colleges are addressing the problem suggests that no two share the same approach to food insecurity.
Efforts to better accommodate students
Some area colleges are tweaking their approach to addressing food insecurity to accommodate students better. One such example can be found at East Hartford’s Goodwin University, where about half of the estimated 3,000 students identify as persons of color and many are of non-traditional college age with families of their own—factors that increase college students’ risk of food insecurity, according to The #RealCollegeSurvey, the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students.
And yet, when Goodwin University opened a food pantry on campus, only about seven students and their families took advantage of it. Housed in a low-traffic area and operating outside of any specific division, the pantry remained a relatively unknown and under-supported entity on campus. Then the pandemic struck.
“We found, especially during the pandemic, there was such a diverse need,” said Isamar Rodriguez, Goodwin’s community and educational service learning coordinator. That’s when the university began to look to address food insecurity differently. With a modest budget, strategic partnerships, including with Connecticut Foodshare and local grocery stores, and donations from internal supporters, the pantry in the past year has transitioned into the Ann B. Clark Community Co-op and was brought under the umbrella of the student affairs division of the university.
Now the co-op is meeting the food needs of an estimated 120 students and their families, whose average household size is three, according to Rodriguez. Students, faculty and staff are welcome at the co-op, where offerings extend beyond those typically associated with traditional food pantries, like canned goods. When available, Goodwin’s co-op offers dairy-free, peanut- and nut-free, and vegetarian options, fresh produce, meats and fish. Food items are ranked nutritionally using a Supporting Wellness at Pantries (SWAP) model from the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Foodshare.
The food isn’t the only inviting aspect of the co-op. “We make it feel so welcoming here,” Argueta said. “We don’t ask people for their income or anything. You just grab what you need and go about your day.”
Similar to Goodwin University, the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus works to assist students experiencing food insecurity through its dean of students office within its division of student affairs. Otherwise, the two colleges’ strategies differ greatly.
Unlike Goodwin, UConn’s main campus has no food pantry on campus. Its website lists contact information for area food pantries at the bottom of the dean of students section. Additionally, “UConn Faith,” listed under the student affairs section of the school’s website, contains a more robust listing of resources such as food banks and food pantries in the greater Connecticut community. But students who are experiencing food insecurity may not think to look for assistance via the search term “faith.”
Although UConn’s Storrs campus does not have an on-site food pantry, it’s one of four Connecticut colleges (along with Manchester Community College, Tunxis Community College and the University of New Haven) that partners with Swipe Out Hunger, which works with colleges nationwide to assist in the design and implementation of anti-hunger programs. Maureen Armstrong, associate dean of students at UConn, emphasizes that the school takes what she calls a holistic approach to challenges students face, which may include food insecurity.
Before students are provided access to the school’s food assistance program, they must first engage individually with an assistant dean in a broad conversation about issues impacting their lives — which may include academic, financial, or other personal struggles. Students who cite food insecurity can complete a needs assessment to determine if they qualify for the UConn Swipe program. Qualifying students receive, free of charge, a block of 25 meals on a university-issued card to use in any of the UConn dining halls.
During the 2021-22 academic year, nearly 3,000 students on the main campus (whose total undergraduate population is approximately 18,500) sought support from UConn’s dean of students office for various reasons not necessarily related to food insecurity. Among these, just 31 meal blocks were awarded to students.
A separate campus-wide initiative to combat food insecurity has reached far more students. The university’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) last year launched Husky Market, which uses funds from university-issued student fees to purchase gift cards that students who self-identify as food insecure can use to buy food at three participating grocery stores: Price Chopper, Stop & Shop and Big Y. This year, says Peter Spinelli, vice president of the USG, the initiative has $482,000 that will provide a little more than 1,600 cards.
Spinelli said that this year, the program received more applications than they have cards to award. And yet, the gift card model of combating food insecurity is likely to be in its final year at UConn. The USG was able to launch the initiative during the pandemic because the university administration loosened financial restrictions regarding how student fees could be used.
As the USG grapples with the end of the successful program that, Spinelli notes, allows students in need to remain anonymous and avoid the stigma associated with food insecurity, he says the student organization will continue trying to meet the basic needs of their classmates.
The stigma around food insecurity is proven to prevent students in need from seeking or accepting assistance. Such stigma is well-documented, most recently in a 2021 survey of college students experiencing food insecurity. Many reported not using available food pantries because they didn’t want people to find out about it.
Swipe Out Hunger’s executive director Jaime Hansen acknowledges stigma as a significant obstacle to overcoming food insecurity and says it factors into how the organization trains partnering colleges. “When folks come to us and are putting together their intake process, we encourage a low barrier process,” she said.
The Goodwin University’s co-op staff say they operate with this perspective in mind. “It’s hard for people to ask for help,” Rodriguez said. “We try to destigmatize it.”
This story was first published by C-HIT.org on Oct. 11, 2022.