How can college food pantries help when students aren’t on campus?

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting closures have separated many lower-income college students from essential resources, including meal plans and campus food pantries. Noting that students’ stress and hunger have only increased in recent months, college food pantries, staff, and administrators are finding new ways to make sure food-insecure students can access needed meals. 

‘So many students were already close to the edge’

Edward Conroy, associate director of research communications for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, points out that today’s college students are likely to shoulder far more responsibilities than in the past—they are often first-generation students, older, or caring for family members. 

Add in wage stagnation and rising college costs, and many of today’s students aren’t able to afford three meals a day. “So many students were already close to the edge, just surviving,” Conroy told Civil Eats. When colleges closed, “entire support networks disappeared.”

As colleges sent students home this spring, food pantries tried to figure out how to continue feeding students, who, in many cases, were unable to get to campus, or even out of state.


Financial Aid and COVID-19

Charlene Brown-McKenzie, director of Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, and Missy Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholars Program, discuss the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students who rely on financial aid.

Finding ways to feed displaced students

City University of New York (CUNY) this spring found that the prevalence of food insecurity among students had doubled compared with 2018 numbers. Yet, very few were using CUNY’s 18 food pantries; many were accessing community-based resources instead. 

Saying that “campus-based food assistance doesn’t make sense if people are not coming to campus,” Nick Freudenberg, director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, calls on administrators to “put their minds and resources to thinking of other services.” CUNY used city funds to provide 1,595 food-insecure students with $400 each for groceries but estimates that more than 35,000 of its students are food-insecure.

Philander Smith College—a historically Black college in Little Rock, Arkansas, where 85 percent of students’ families live in poverty—kept its pantry open this spring, but after traffic dropped off, the college decided to take further steps to ensure students’ access to food. Thanks to private donations, the college was able to offer “grab-and-go” food baskets for local students. It also distributed grocery gift cards and emergency funds to students needing more flexibility. 

On the other side of the country in California, Fresno City College’s food pantry not only lengthened its hours, it expanded its services to include the general public, which led to a 40 percent increase in clients.  

Looking toward the fall, advocates are encouraging campus food pantries and college administrators to prepare for the possibility of future emergency shut-downs—and to recognize that campus food pantries are only a temporary solution to a long-term hunger problem. Experts recommend ensuring eligible students enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, exploring the role of emergency aid in meeting basic needs, and considering the adoption of a universal free meal program at colleges across the nation.

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