Community colleges combat hunger through campus food pantries
Hunger for knowledge may not be the only pang some college students feel.
Students nationwide face a tough choice among paying for books and tuition, rent and buying food.
To address the growing need, several suburban community colleges have started campus food pantries that provide basic necessities to keep students fed while attending classes, and connect them with community resources. The pantries often are funded through grants and donors.
Students passing out in class from hunger or filling up on free candy at the financial adviser's office are just some examples that drove employees at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake to start the Purple Pantry.
"We've always had students who are hungry. Staff members would just feed them," said Lena Kalemba, MCC's director of health and wellness.
Students needing food now are given coupons to eat in the college cafeteria and can pick up canned and microwaveable foods from the pantry. Last year, students were given 126 cafeteria meals and roughly 30 bags of food.
"The program has more than doubled in the last couple of years since its inception. We have more students each semester who find out about it and seek it out," Kalemba said. "We make a lot of referrals to local food pantries because when college isn't in session, students need to eat."
Few colleges statewide have similar food programs for low-income students, according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance.
Among those that do are Aurora University, College of Lake County in Grayslake, College of DuPage, Elgin Community College, and National Louis University in Chicago and suburbs.
Growing food insecurity
A 2016 survey by four campus-based organizations -- the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups -- questioned 3,765 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities about food insecurity.
Forty-eight percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days. The problem was more prevalent among students of color -- 57 percent of black students compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students -- and more than half of all first-generation students (56 percent) reported insecurity.
National food assistance network Feeding America's 2014 Hunger in America report notes roughly 10 percent, or 2 million, of its 46.5 million adult clients are college students and 30.5 percent of those surveyed were forced to choose between food and educational expenses.
A food pantry model
The need is apparent at Elgin Community College, which opened its student-run Spartan Food Pantry in February 2015.
Last year, the pantry served 2,620 students -- nearly double the 1,386 visitors in 2016. It is operated by Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society students, who also host programs like Thanksgiving dinner for patrons and an appreciation dinner for donors.
"Every year the pantry is expanding," said Erin Humpfer, 19, of Carpentersville, one of two student food pantry officers. "We increased the amount of hours that we are open so that people with varying schedules can come in and use the pantry."
Pantry volunteers have given out cookbooks and gift certificates to patrons, held raffles for food baskets, and delivered food on carts at campus. The pantry also provides basic hygiene products, diapers and condoms.
"Students who have been helped often come back to help and volunteer," said Amybeth Maurer, ECC Student Life director and honor society adviser. "The patrons often are the most generous donors."
ECC's food pantry model is being duplicated elsewhere, including at College Of DuPage. As part of a collegewide project, COD's Phi Theta Kappa students surveyed students, faculty and staff members about food insecurity.
"They found that one in 10 of our students were either food insecure or knew somebody who was food insecure," said Shannon Hernandez, Phi Theta Kappa adviser.
COD's Fuel Pantry opened in December 2016. Last fall, it served roughly 60 students, faculty and staff members.
"We have a challenge here because we are so big," Hernandez said. "I really don't feel like we have come close to reaching out to everyone who needs the service."
Harper College in Palatine just last month launched Harper Hawks Care, offering food items, toiletries, school and other supplies. Students provide a shopping list of items, which are bagged and kept ready for pickup.
"People don't always openly present themselves as being poor," said Terese Craig, Harper associate dean of student affairs. "The anonymity of not having a (physical) pantry helps in our situation. It's difficult to ask for help no matter what community you are in. We want to take that stigma out."