Food scholarships, meal-swipe drives, and more: Emerging ways to meet basic needs

Around 500 college administrators, instructors, and researchers gathered last weekend for the fourth-annual #RealCollege conference, which seeks to address food and housing insecurity on college campuses. Spearheaded by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, this year’s convening took place at Houston Community College in Texas, a location chosen for its innovative approach to food insecurity, EdSurge reports. Here are five takeaways, and video footage of the event is available online.

1. Forward-thinking communities are expanding beyond food pantries

Strategies for eradicating hunger on campus featured prominently at the conference, as Sara Goldrick-Rab—the Hope Center’s founding director—urged attendees to consider systemic solutions. She pointed to innovative ways the Houston Food Bank is partnering with Houston Community College through its program called Food for Change. The program name alone, Goldrick-Rab told Houston Public Media, prompts the question, “Why don’t we use food to help people on their journey to economic security?” Food for Change prioritizes hunger-prevention, awarding “food scholarships” to support students before they become food-insecure.

The Hope Center also is partnering with Swipe Out Hunger, a student-led, national nonprofit that works with institutions to donate “meal swipes” to a fund that supports students experiencing food insecurity. Georgetown University’s chapter of Swipe Out Hunger recently held its second Meal Swipe Drive and received 1,092 meal-swipe donations, up from 538 meal-swipe donations during the first drive in the spring, The Hoya reports. 

2. Advocates hope technology can streamline the disbursement of emergency aid

Education technology start-up Edquity—where Goldrick-Rab serves as chief strategy officer—also co-sponsored the #RealCollege conference. The for-profit company is expanding its money-management apps in hopes of helping financially vulnerable college students more effectively and efficiently obtain emergency aid.

Free to students, Edquity’s app is designed to reduce bias in awarding aid and to quickly connect students with needed resources without asking them to “perform their poverty,” David Helene, Edquity’s founder, told EdSurge.

3. Data is critical—but not at the expense of student support

While noting how surveys and other data collection can help drive efforts to stem food and housing insecurity, conference speakers also discussed potential pitfalls. Data, they said, can reveal hidden needs and help make the case for policy change and campus investments.

However, surveys can be costly, and data-collection can bog down programs that need to quickly connect students with necessities. Moreover, “undocumented students and others from marginalized groups may be skittish about using services that require them to share identifying information,” notes EdSurge.

4. Community colleges are getting creative

Some conference attendees pointed out “how much innovation is coming from community colleges” in supporting student success. As open-access institutions that attract students juggling family responsibilities, work obligations, transportation needs, and financial constraints, “a lot of the nation’s community colleges are well on their way to this work already,” said Goldrick-Rab.

5. Students are humans first

Asked about the best ways to reduce the stigma associated with poverty, Goldrick-Rab called on stakeholders to remember that “students are human first.” It has become the motto of the #RealCollege movement and “means that if you want somebody to learn, you have to recognize that their basic needs have to be met,” she said.

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