The Latest Innovation in Student Retention at Colleges: ‘Food Scholarships’

Nov 12, 2019

College kids have a reputation for seeking out free food, and that's why any student organizer knows that ordering pizza is a good way to lure folks to a meeting. But for many students, hunger is a far more serious problem.

More than 30 percent of college students may not regularly get enough to eat. And that's from an analysis conducted last year by the federal Government Accountability Office.

The issue of “food insecurity” among students was one of the major topics of discussion at the #RealCollege conference in Houston that was held earlier this fall. It brought together students, professors, administrators and policymakers from across the country, and it was at Houston Community College, which has actually done a lot of work to help students and their families have the food that they need to succeed in the classroom.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of students going hungry and at all kinds of higher ed institutions. And that probably affects their schoolwork and their ability to graduate, not to mention their health.

Listen to this week’s podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or in the player below. Or read a portion of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: At the #RealCollege conference, I met many students and professors and nonprofit leaders who are making it a priority personally and professionally to prevent students' stomachs from growling. One of them is Kat Cowley. She's the food pantry student coordinator at the University of Montana. And it was very interesting when we met, it was such a hot day in Houston in late September, but it was already snowing in Missoula where she's from. She was eager to learn with and from the 500 other people who were there at the conference talking about student hunger.

Kat Cowley: I was really excited that year's focus seemed to be more towards policy and long-term solutions because that's kind of the spot where we're really struggling with back at UM. We've got a food pantry. That's awesome. We're working on resources for homeless students. That's awesome. But those are bandaids at the end of the day. What we want to do is close and what we want to do is solve the root of the problem.


This week's podcast is brought to you by UNC Chapel Hill’s Master of Arts in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Program, known as the MEITE Program:

MEITE is for students pursuing careers in the educational technology industry.

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EdSurge: Cowley told me about who uses the multiple food pantries at the university, which are called the Grizzly Cupboards. The school sports teams are called the Grizzlies, and so the university adopted the same name for the food distribution sites. That's probably on purpose to get away from the stigma that is sometimes associated with a food pantry or a soup kitchen. Lots of other schools have have cute names too. The University of Florida has the Field and Fork Pantry. Arizona State has the Pitchfork Pantry and the University of Cincinnati has the Bearcats Pantry.

All kinds of students come. At the University of Montana, they have Grizzly Cupboards in different parts of campus to try to make it convenient for students who identify in different ways. So there are cupboards in the student union building, at the veterans’ office, at the American Indian student services office, that sort of thing, to serve different populations in places where they're already likely to show up.

Cowley: We have students of all ages. We have a lot of student parents. I think about a third, if I guess right, of our customers are parents. We get a number of homeless people just from the community because they spend time on campus and that's great. We have food for them too. And then we have this really funky mix of both students who are on meal plans and their meal plan doesn't stretch to the end of the week, so they need more food, and students who have extra meal plan left over and use that to donate food back to us. It's this funky balance we're looking at right now.

EdSurge: Cowley, who is now a graduate student in public administration, mentioned that she attended the University of Montana as an undergraduate because tuition was more affordable for her than her options in Washington State where she's from.

So if tuition at the university is pretty inexpensive, I wondered why students still have trouble affording food?

Cowley: Our housing market in Missoula right now is a nightmare, particularly for student renters, and that really high rent, really low vacancy rate paired with our $8.50 minimum wage kind of is this perfect storm of "I can barely work enough hours to feed myself. How am I also going to buy that textbook and also going to pay my class fees?" It's this perfect mix of really unique and complex issues that students are going to face that non-students won't have to deal with.

EdSurge: That conversation clued me into something that I would come to understand in more detail over the course of the weekend: Hunger among students is a problem tied to many other problems. It relates to tuition, rent, wages, transportation, family relationships, the cost of textbooks and school supplies. And all of these things affect the extent to which students have enough to eat. Over the weekend, I heard someone say that food is often the most fungible item in students' budgets. They have to pay rent, but they could make their food budgets stretch further if they just buy less food. Cowley knows firsthand how these issues intersect and make it hard for students to focus on their schoolwork.

Cowley: Yeah, I actually had a test the day after I lost my house and failed it. I had not struggled in that course at all. I was feeling good. I had studied. And then just because of that trauma kind of all being dumped on me at once, you can't process it in a day. So I walked into my social stats class and my professor was amazing, but they still can't just give you another test because you're sad. So it took me a couple of weeks to get caught up and then really I was struggling all the way up until I had stable housing again and I got back into the dorms.

And on top of that, even years later, I still experienced a lot of stress and really struggle kind of bringing that to professors to say, "Hey, I'm not doing well. I need some extra help." And anytime I do, my professors are awesome, but it takes a lot to really fight through that stigma and fight through that. Like, "Well, I should be able to do this. What's wrong with me?"

EdSurge: Professors then end up with a front-row seat to what these struggles are for students.

That's why the organizer of the #RealCollege conference, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor and college affordability advocate, started the FAST Fund. It's a nonprofit program that gives small grants to professors who then use the money to help students with small needs, say a grocery gift card or a bus pass to make sure they can get to class.

And it was really interesting at the conference to learn that professors are not just witnesses to this problem, but they can also be going hungry too, kind of behind the scenes. I met with a woman named Sharri Wirth who says she is now on pretty solid financial ground and works in the prison re-entry program at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. But she wasn't always doing as well financially as she is now, and she explained how hard it was for her to work on her associate and bachelor's degrees while she was raising children and struggling with debt.

Sharri Wirth: I was gung-ho and ready, but then I can honestly remember the nights I would sit, at that point, me and my children had to move back to my mother's due to finances and some safety issues, but I can remember sitting in the garage crying, thinking, "I can't do this. I cannot do this. There's no way." I'm working. I had waited tables and I'm doing this and money was ... How am I ever going to support my kids? And I just felt overwhelmed. And I had a couple of friends that I would call, and they would come up. And my daughter would say, "Mommy, you can do this." But it was very overwhelming. It was. And I think without the support, I don't know if I would have finished. And they pushed me to do more.

EdSurge: Wirth's money problems didn't immediately vanish once she earned her degrees and got a job working at the community college. Her colleagues may not have known it, but she was still struggling for a while. And she told me that not everyone really appreciates this fact. I witnessed this with her. We were participating in a team activity at the conference, the kind of group team-building exercises one must do at conferences. And we were at a table with students and other faculty members designing a campus food pantry according to a set of parameters that we were given. And several of the participants thought that the resources should only go to students. They had a set budget. They only had limited resources. So they thought only students should be able to come and get this food. And Wirth disagreed, thinking back to when she herself needed help as a new faculty member.

Wirth: Because, like I said, I've made poor choices in my life and was involved in the criminal justice system. But it's a good feeling when you see somebody change. It's just amazing when they're not defined by their mistakes. And it's so easy for us to define people by their mistakes or to think we know the story, which was what I was thinking sitting at that table. It's very easy for you to say, "Don't give it to faculty" or "Go to another food bank." But until you know the story, there's so much that you don't know.

EdSurge: For that reason, Wirth thinks college programs designed to offer social services to students should also be open to faculty. And she thinks that setting that example may even make students more comfortable seeking help.

Wirth: We have to be healthy. To help the people that we're helping, we have to be in a good state of mind, in a good place. And if we feel like they're supporting us, I feel the students see that. And I also think if I can tell a student, "There's a food bank available. You need to go. I've been there. I go." It's that stigma. We work very hard where I work to reduce the stigma, and I just think that sets a better precedent.

EdSurge: Big systematic solutions to this problem of student hunger were also discussed at the conference.

Leaders at the event are really hoping to change federal and state policy, and it seems like that work is picking up steam. Right before the event, officials in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill that would expand SNAP or food stamp eligibility to millions of college students. So that was kind of talked about at the conference as a promising development. But beyond official halls of power, colleges are trying some interesting solutions on their own too.

This is maybe a moment where there's a shift in things to moving from awareness to actually more going on at colleges.


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