College students’ struggle to pay for school can often severely reduce their access to healthy food, or even leave them scrambling to find the next meal. Food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says can range from a diminished quality of diet to noticeably reduced food intake, is a growing problem on university campuses across the country as tuition and fees continue to mount. And with a steep tuition increase in Texas, attending college—much less being able to afford food and housing—is becoming more difficult: in 2003, the Texas Lege deregulated public university tuition rates, allowing universities to set their own; according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the average tuition at public universities in Texas more than doubled from fall 2003 to fall 2014, increasing by 119 percent.
On top of rising costs, the majority of college students are what the National Center for Education Statistics defines as nontraditional students, which means that they have either delayed enrollment, attend school part time, work full time, are financially independent, have dependents (not including a spouse ), are a single parent, or do not have a high school diploma. So though the typical representation of a college student is a high school graduate who lives on campus and has support from family, that’s increasingly not the case.
As a response to growing food insecurity, which can hinder students’ ability to graduate, Michigan State Food Bank and the Oregon State University Food Pantry founded the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), which now has over 300 members from campuses all over the nation. The University of Texas at Dallas is one of the fifteen Texas schools that has joined CUFBA to provide food for their students. According to Hillary Campbell, assistant director of Undergraduate Programs at UT Dallas, the university opened their food pantry, Comet Cupboard, in May 2012 in response to student concerns, modeling their pantry after the Knights Pantry at the University of Central Florida.
“What we were able to see in those kinds of one-on-one situations is a pattern of students who are struggling academically due to circumstances in their lives,” Campbell tells Texas Monthly. “We thought that this could really meet a need we’ve observed, but it could also provide a service learning opportunity for our students as well.”
The pantry has been popular among students since it opened, with the number of unique users—people who haven’t used the pantry before—increasing by one-third every year, which Campbell notes is faster than the university’s growth. As a program from the Office of Undergraduate Education, the Comet Cupboard has a budget and a hired graduate student who works at the pantry 20 hours a week, but as student interest and use of the Comet Cupboard has grown, so has campus support and involvement. Campbell says the pantry is taking “baby steps more toward a student-run model.”
But though the students welcomed the pantry, the university staff initially hesitated. “It took a couple of years before we stopped hearing people say, ‘We have the highest tuition, so if you can afford to come here, you can afford to eat,’” Campbell says. Some critics would trivialize struggling to eat to college. Campbell recalls hearing comments such as, “‘Well, I had to work my way through school, I had to eat canned soup or bread back when I was a student. I had to go hungry sometimes. So if I had to, then these kids should have to do it.’” Eventually, these objections died down because of other staff members and administrators supporting the pantry. Even if the image of the student surviving on ramen noodles has been normalized, supporters aren’t willing to accept it.
Although the Comet Cupboard is a program from the Office of Undergraduate Education, Campbell notes that graduate students are their “heaviest users,” since they generally tend to be nontraditional students. Ashlee Taylor, a nutritional sciences doctoral candidate at Texas Tech University and the coordinator for the Wreck Hunger Graduate and International Food Pantry, also cited the typical needs of graduate students as the motivation for opening the food pantry. At Texas Tech, graduate students get appointments as teaching assistants or resident assistants that come with fee waivers and monthly stipends, but Taylor said that some appointments prevent graduate students from having another job. Even with a stipend, students are only paid once a month, and things can get difficult during winter and summer break. “In the summer, since usually the undergraduates are gone, there are not as many positions,” Taylor says. “So they have just three months to fend for themselves.”
These breaks can be especially difficult for international students, both undergraduate and graduate. International students are more likely to be stuck on campus during winter and summer breaks when there are fewer campus appointments and jobs available. Even when they can get off campus, they’re often unable to find work outside of the university on student visas.
Taylor also notes that international students can also experience a kind of culture shock when it comes to food in the U.S. That’s why the Wreck Hunger food pantry also focuses on nutrition education in addition to addressing food insecurity. They operate on a point system, which allows students to choose the food they want and recognize, and they also provide cleaning supplies and equipment like can openers to support proper nutrition education and reduce food waste. Unlike the Comet Cupboard, the Wreck Hunger food pantry is what Taylor considers a “community-driven student initiative.”
“Everybody who’s a part of this are students,” Taylor says. It belongs to no specific department, has no office support, and no budget, so the pantry operates on volunteers and donations. “What that means is that we’re not increasing student fees and tuition to fund this,” Taylor adds.
Because the Wreck Hunger food pantry is relatively new and led by graduate students, they’re focused primarily on graduate and international students. But Taylor says the pantry has opened the door for conversations on campus about food insecurity and nutrition education.
“I think the latest figure is 307 college pantries across the country,” Taylor says. “And I think what we’re doing collectively—which is really neat—is helping the students at our universities. But together, we’re kind of showing what is happening on the policy level that is creating the need for us to open pantries on our campus.”
Taylor says members of the Wreck Hunger food pantry have met with school administrators to talk about the underlying causes of food insecurity such as tuition and student access to services like SNAP and WIC. And because food insecurity isn’t only a graduate or international student problem, other campus groups at Texas Tech are hoping to partner with a local food bank, South Plains Food Bank, to open an undergraduate food pantry on campus. Still, food pantries are just one part of what Taylor describes as a comprehensive approach to a national issue.
“I think a lot of us [university food pantries] agree that if we didn’t have to open, that would be awesome,” Taylor says. “There’s 300 plus approaches to this issue, but I think collectively we’re all working towards a bigger picture.”