Documentary examines escalation of college student hunger since start of pandemic

A new documentary, “Hungry to Learn,” reveals that a staggering 45 percent of all college students are battling food insecurity and hunger amid the coronavirus pandemic, further intensifying disparities faced by vulnerable populations. Produced by Yahoo Life and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Soledad O’ Brien, the documentary shares the stories of college students across the country whose financial struggles have compounded since last spring’s campus shutdowns. 

According to Yahoo, a number of the nation’s 650 college and university food pantries have had to close their doors or scale back. Plus, less than a quarter of U.S. higher ed institutions are operating fully in-person this fall, separating many students from the stability of campus housing and food services, and limiting campus employment opportunities. 

Related: COVID-19 intensifying college students’ housing, food insecurity

A recent report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that, during the spring, almost three out of every five college students surveyed said they were experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic. “It’s bleak partly because the number of students who were going to be affected by [hunger] is undoubtedly going to be higher,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, Temple University professor and founder of the Hope Center told Yahoo. “The only parallel that we have is the Great Recession. I think that the combination of the health crisis and the economic crisis will make this even worse.”

Students forced to compromise health to get by

On top of food and housing insecurity, students have lost jobs and income critical to funding their education and sustaining their families. According to Feeding America, 22 percent of college students are caring for children; 14 percent are carrying that load as single parents. As thousands of students navigate ways to make ends meet, many have resorted to eating less-than-healthy foods and skipping meals altogether.

“Your body is thinking, ‘Oh my God, where am I going to get my nutrients from next?’” Anastasia Esther, a fourth-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Yahoo. “‘Where is my fuel? What am I supposed to be doing? Forget math homework. I need to focus on not dying.’” 

Esther, who prior to the pandemic worked full-time while attending UW-M full-time, hit a roadblock when applying for unemployment. According to Esther, her status as a student created hurdles, causing her Wisconsin unemployment funds to be withheld for months. 

The red tape surrounding federal aid programs is further complicating matters. As of 2016, more than 3 million college students were eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); however, less than half were enrolled. Many students struggle to fulfill SNAP’s minimum work requirements—which have become an even higher hurdle as students lose jobs due to COVID-19 and attempt to juggle caregiver responsibilities. 

Related: Vulnerable students will need high-touch support this fall, experts say

“If students aren’t on campus, [they] lose their 20-hour workweek requirement, lose that income, and lose their SNAP benefits,” Miriam Lipschutz, advocacy director at Challah for Hunger tells Yahoo. Despite pleas from states and advocates to reduce the barriers keeping students from SNAP benefits during the pandemic, federal officials have declined to make adjustments. “Amazingly, Congress has acted to suspend the work requirement associated with SNAP for regular people, but not for college students,” says Goldrick-Rab.     

Undocumented and international students, populations who typically depend heavily on resources and support from colleges and universities, have especially struggled to access aid after they were excluded from receiving emergency grants provided by the CARES Act. 

Insecurities signal bigger problem at hand

Experts and students agree that the uptick in food and housing insecurity faced by college students is symptomatic of a larger issue: poverty. 

For example, at Bunker Hill Community College, Massachusett’s largest community college, three of every four students live at or below the poverty line. In addition, 60 percent are parents and almost 75 percent are students of color. 

Given the strain students are facing during this public health crisis, Goldrick-Rab suspects that students’ dropout rates and debt burdens will soar. 

“If it got too hard in 1940, or even 1960 and you dropped out, it didn’t set you back in your life the way it does when students drop out now,” she says, citing the fact that tuition has increased while financial aid has plummeted in the generations separating current students and their parents. 

Students in need like Esther are calling for an intervention from the federal government. “To the person who looks at it and says, ‘You’re just not bootstrapping yourself,’ I hand you my broken and worn bootstraps and say, ‘I’ve tried for so long.’ We’ve all tried for so long. And at a certain point, it’s not about the boots, it’s about the ground we’re standing on.”

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