“The need is huge. The resources are limited. There can be the belief that college kids use a food shelf to be able to have more ‘beer money.’ We need to educate the greater community.” – Pantry Coordinator in Minnesota
In the past five years the landscape of tackling college hunger has changed significantly – rather than mostly student-led pantries scattered across the country, faculty, administrators, campuses and university systems as a whole are seeing that college hunger is a real issue and coming together to tackle it at all levels. The need is high: post-COVID lockdown, with rising costs of food, shelter, and other basic necessities, more students are visiting pantries and rates of food insecurity seem to be skyrocketing.
Food security, per the USDA, means access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. For us, food insecurity means students have reliable access to sufficient food (and then some!) Students should always know where their next meal is coming from and have autonomy to choose the food that’s best for their dietary and health needs, and is culturally relevant. This means that food security is more than a bag of canned goods, but takes into account the holistic needs of students, including things like transportation and accessibility.
“The struggle is real. Gas, food, housing, finding employment that pays enough for the hours you have to actually live on your own. I’m constantly going, constantly tired, constantly late/behind. I’m 37. And honestly it takes it tole [sic] on you. So the more help we can get along the way can only be for the better of us all.” – from our 2022 annual student survey
A pantry coordinator from our network recently shared that their pantry is seeing increased numbers of students and while they are doing everything they can to keep the pantry open and support students, the need is greater than the people coming in. Donations and food banks don’t meet the full need, and despite receiving one of our annual pantry micro-grants, they were unable to secure the funding they need to close that gap. They even recalled going to three different grocery stores to get the dairy products they needed for their students, and working evenings and weekends to meet student needs.
In their 2021 Real College report, our friends at The Hope Center, found that 38% of students at two-year colleges and 29% of students at four-year colleges experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days, with that number continuing to rise throughout the pandemic. In our 2022 Student Survey, we found that nearly 30% of students accessing our network partners’ pantries and swipe programs have had to choose between food and other essentials during their college experience (including 18% choosing between textbooks and food) and close to 25% of respondents said that they did not always have enough food to meet their needs and maintain their health this year – indicating that even with supports in place, pantries aren’t able to meet the rising need amongst students.
Despite this, we believe students are most comfortable and supports are most accessible when they’re on campus, and know Swipe Out Hunger as an organization is especially resourced to help campuses bridge this gap, first by learning about it, and then by acting. We surveyed 353 U.S. college and university pantries (read our 2021 Public Paper!) and found that, like the pantry coordinator we talked to, inventory, funding, and staffing remain the biggest internal and systematic challenges for campus food pantries.
Another pantry coordinator in our network shared that they felt very isolated for a long time and the connections they’ve been able to make through our monthly Swipe Session webinars helped them get through the pandemic. Through webinars, our online community resource hub, and regional convenings, we get campuses face-to-face with each other to talk about the issues, share resources, and find mutual solutions, so none of us are in this work alone.
Engaging our network and providing direct campus support allows us to come beside pantries, Swipe drives, and basic needs hubs wherever they are in their programming and offer support that’s tailored to what the campus needs, particularly through external partnerships and funding.
On a practical level, this looks like facilitating relationships between pantries and key partners to provide free or discounted products for things like pantry management software, cold storage solutions, hygiene products, and more. On a larger scale, we work with food banks and food service companies to remove barriers and leverage existing systems and infrastructure that can save pantries time and money.
Finally, our most impressive systems change work is in getting direct funding into the hands of campuses that need it most, through our Hunger Free Campus Bill, drafted in 2017, passed in six states, and introduced in nine and counting, and through our pantry microgrant program. Swipe Out Hunger has facilitated $215,000 directly to campus pantries since Fall 2021, for campuses to purchase food, refrigeration, software, and, most importantly, to pay students to work on these programs. We work to keep our grants as low barrier and easy to access as possible, setting the precedent that communities in need are the experts in creating their own solutions.
Because of this belief, when working with legislators to introduce, pass, and implement Hunger Free Campus funding to public universities, we make sure these experts are at the table every step of the way. We do this by connecting with student coalitions, campus leaders, and community organizations to build movement momentum and garner support through rallies, action days, meeting with local legislators, and social media takeovers. By amplifying student voices, we are able to sway legislators to allocate state funding for food security programming at public colleges and universities while helping to change the national narrative about the importance of meeting student basic needs.
We do this incredible work by sticking to Swipe Out Hunger’s core values, which starts with centering our campus communities. Everything we do is informed by the work happening on the ground and the experiences of students in need. Because student need is immediate and their experiences are ever-evolving, we must take risks and default towards action, while welcoming vulnerability to try new things that may not work and holding ourselves accountable to our network on the ground and the students they serve.
We are endlessly grateful to the network for their work and joining us in partnership to create a world where students feel like they belong and are cared for – because of our deep respect for the work they do, we plan, communicate, and live with integrity, to make sure we are an organization that is truly supporting our partners’ work on the ground and uplifting student leaders to care for themselves and their communities, always advancing our shared vision of campuses where every student has their most basic needs met.
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