For the college student, there’s hunger and then there’s hunger.
From the age of 16, a modest financial aid package toward a private undergraduate college, including tuition, room and board, and two meals a day, kept a roof over my head for four years, and allowed me to prove my independence to my widowed father by paying other expenses with part-time jobs, all the while maintaining my place on the Dean’s List.
During those pre-Smartphone years, I gave my blue collar dad a measure of relief by writing home regularly, never reversing my occasional long distance pay phone charges, and never asking for money even when I needed it badly. When my work study paycheck could stretch no farther, and the cost of books and a warmer coat for the brutal Boston winter had reduced my checking account balance to ten dollars, I cobbled together a meal of sorts from cereal and orange juice pilfered after hours from the dining hall. There were potluck meals with friends and neighbors, each bringing whatever was left over at the end of the month—a can of tuna, a box of Bisquick, and, of course, spaghetti, spaghetti, and more spaghetti! We were ridiculously young, but we had each other. Temporary hunger—a missed meal here and there—was tolerable when you knew where you would be sleeping every night, and when tuition was paid by loans and a scholarship.
(Mea culpa: to my former roommates and boyfriends from decades past, the mystery of your missing snacks has officially been solved. I now confess that I ate your leftover General Tso chicken unsuccessfully hidden in the crisper, and the pudding cups and chocolate chip cookies stashed away in the linen closet! Now that I’ve finally gotten that off my chest, I can return to the safety of my well-deserved semi-retirement with a clear conscience).
But the truly food-insecure college student with or without children and lacking the safety net of grants and scholarships, plays a weekly game of chance with no clear prize at the end of the month. If she ignores the final utility notice, the rent increase, or the overdue car payment, or puts off the babysitter one more time, she’ll have to miss classes that she hasn’t yet paid for, and face the reality of dropping out of school all together. Filling the refrigerator first is still a Hobson’s choice, and the fragile house of cards collapses.
Nationally, nearly 40% of community college students report food insecurity. Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education notes that “…college affordability is…about more than just tuition and fees. Students struggle to pay living costs… (and) need support to meet these basic needs.” (“Murphy Administration Addresses Food Insecurity for Community College Students”, Insider New Jersey, Nov. 19, 2018. https://www.insidernj.com )
This is an invisible crisis, often endured in isolation and shame. But thankfully, Governor Phil Murphy’s administration has committed to partnering with groups like the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and Hunger Free New Jersey, and to expanding SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) eligibility for students in community college career and technical education programs.
Food banks, long associated with sororities and fraternities as their source of volunteerism for community service projects, are now serving some of the hungry students who once served them. Among the food banks currently operating on New Jersey campuses:
Montgomery Community College’s Stock Up for Success, featured this year in a local television news story, is available right on campus to students in need.
The Center for Food Action offers a food bank for students on the Paramus campus of Bergen Community College.
The Shop@TCNJ, a campus food bank that is also open to the surrounding community, is open Mondays 9:30 a.m. to 12 noon, and Wednesdays 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. and at other times by special arrangement (“The College of New Jersey Opens Food Pantry for Food Insecure Students”,
Nov. 25, 2018. http://diverseeducation.com ).
As of this writing, the James Kerney campus of Mercer County Community College in downtown Trenton does not have designated space for a food pantry, and meets student needs privately through their counselors. Bryan O’Neal, Assistant to the Dean, was elected to the school’s food pantry board in November 2018 (“While Food Insecurity Is a Major Problem for Mercer County Community Students, Information on What Help is Available is Conflicting”, by Chelsey Johnstone, Drew Mumich, and Tori Pender, The College Voice, Feb. 7, 2019. www.mcccvoice.org/food.insecurity/ ).
And what can you do to help? Do you know of a struggling college student in your neighborhood? You can help in a very simple but meaningful way: put an extra bag of oranges or a loaf of bread in your shopping cart this week. Consider it your investment in the community and the future of our nation. Really. (Remember the chilling tagline from that old UNCF commercial from our childhood, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”?)
If you can, invite a student over for a meal. But do him a favor: maybe make it something other than spaghetti, okay?