By Erin Delmore
Hunger is striking where many least expect it: college campuses.
“The students who we are serving are your everyday students. It could be that they’re having a bad week, they didn’t get their paycheck yet and they need help making ends meet for this one week or for the next couple of weeks. It could be a student who when they registered for classes and chose to live on campus they signed up for a meal plan that provides for lesser meal swipes in a semester and they did that so that they could afford the semester. But the end of the semester rolls around, they don’t have any meal swipes left. How are they going to eat?” explained Kerri Willson, director of off-campus living and community partnerships at Rutgers University.
Check out this Facebook page — “Where the free food at?” — launched and manned by Rutgers University students chasing a free meal. And they’re not alone. While around 15 percent of Americans are going hungry, a student survey by the City University of New York found it’s nearly 50 percent for its students.
“There are a large number of students that are experiencing food insecurity. I know that it can be a very common assumption that they are not. But there are students that are not being supported by parents, challenges because of tuition costs going up, cost of living going up and also financial aid, particularly the Pell Grant not necessarily supporting the way that it has in the past,” said College and University Food Bank Alliance Director Clare Cady.
Rutgers New Brunswick launched a food pantry to meet students’ needs.
“There’s not one singular story of who a college student is today. A college student can be your typical 18- to 22-year-old, or it can be somebody who lost their job and they’re returning to college so that they can get a second career but they’re supporting a wife or husband and children, parents, whomever it is that they need to support. They need the help because they don’t have a regular income coming in,” Willson said.
Nationwide nonprofit Feeding America says nearly one in three U.S. households has had to choose between food and education over the course of a year, a trend exacerbated by New Jersey’s high cost of living.
“Being part of such a large state university, we’re getting a completely different and diverse population of students here. So there’s really no way to really quantify the individual needs of each person,” said Rutgers senior Amoli Kulkarni.
Kulkarni works at Rutgers’ food pantry, brand new this fall.
“I know there’s absolutely no face to hunger. You may know someone very well and not know that they’re food insecure because it’s not something they feel comfortable bringing up with you,” Kulkarni said.
The pantry stocks canned goods, boxed foods, staples like peanut butter and ramen. Plus, toiletries. Students are referred through university administrators, but that doesn’t make the program invitation only.
“If a student shows up on our door and needs food, we’re going to provide them with food, but we’re going to refer them back to the dean of students’ office, because we feel very strongly that if a students’ basic need is not being met, like food is a basic need that all humans have, and if that’s not being met, there’s the potential that there are other ramifications from that happening. Are they doing OK in school? Are they in emotional distress? What other issues may be coming up because they’re dealing with these things?” Willson said.
Rutgers faculty and administrators are looking to answer those questions to make sure they’re meeting students’ needs. They plan to launch a student survey this fall.