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An unimaginable choice for college students: food or textbooks | Opinion

A bill in front of state legislators would enable colleges to provide direct financial assistance to students facing food insecurity.

Jodi Roth-Saks (left) and Tori Nuccio launched and supported a food pantry at West Chester University in 2017. A bill introduced in 2020 would give colleges more aid to directly help hungry students in Pennsylvania.
Jodi Roth-Saks (left) and Tori Nuccio launched and supported a food pantry at West Chester University in 2017. A bill introduced in 2020 would give colleges more aid to directly help hungry students in Pennsylvania.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Although Benjamin Franklin was considered radical in 1753 when he founded the Academy of Philadelphia, his vision was practical. Exclaiming that “an investment in education always pays the highest returns,” he understood what we now know: strengthening Pennsylvania’s economy requires providing high-quality, affordable education to our future workforce. Yet, more than a century later, Pennsylvania’s college students are holding on by a thread, while their most basic needs — food, housing, and other living costs — are threatened.

To save Pennsylvania’s public colleges, our legislators must prioritize tackling basic needs security among college students. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, around one in three students attending four-year colleges in Philadelphia struggled to meet their basic needs. More than half of students enrolled in community college experienced basic needs insecurity — and the pandemic only deepened this alarming issue.

Thousands of students across the commonwealth are having to make the unimaginable choice between paying for textbooks or buying food. When students have to worry about where their next meal will come from, reaching their full potential can feel inconceivable. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies have shown that students experiencing food insecurity are more likely to have lower grades and withdraw before receiving their diploma or certificate than their classmates. When students drop out, they qualify for fewer jobs, earn less money, have difficulty repaying student loans, and may rely more on state assistance. Colleges suffer from further declines in enrollment, and the state’s investments in higher education are wasted.

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Recognizing these consequences, many public colleges across the state have established grassroots initiatives to combat food insecurity. Millersville University works with its neighboring church to run a food pantry and serve free hot meals to students; Bucks County Community College students can receive a $50 grocery store gift card and help from a case manager on accessing other resources. The Community College of Allegheny County operates a “Campus Cupboard,” distributing nonperishable food, household items, and occasionally fresh produce from the campus garden to their peers.

These initiatives are critical, but they are not sustainable nor sufficient on their own to meet students’ needs. Even before the pandemic delivered a financial blow to public colleges, few had the extra dollars needed to invest in their students. In 2020, Pam Frontino, the former associate director of service-learning and volunteer programs at West Chester University, testified before the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee on some of the challenges she encountered in mitigating student hunger. Though the university is very supportive of the pantry, she shared that it could not provide direct financial assistance — which can significantly support students with their basic needs.

Understanding the urgency of supporting students as they return to campuses this fall, State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) and Jennifer O’Mara (D., Delaware) and State Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D., Chester) introduced the Hunger-Free Campus Act. If passed, it would provide $1 million in grants annually to public higher education institutions addressing student hunger. The funding could be used by campuses to create SNAP enrollment opportunities, establish an anti-hunger task force, fund food pantries, start meal swipe sharing programs, and raise awareness about existing on-campus resources.

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The bill — originally authored by Swipe Out Hunger — has already passed in California, New Jersey, Maryland, and Minnesota, providing more than $70 million to public colleges to date. Here in Pennsylvania, it has garnered endorsements from a broad coalition of stakeholders including Feeding Pennsylvania and Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, which represent food banks across the Keystone State, dozens of food pantries, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and a number of national and state organizations.

If Pennsylvania wants to strengthen the higher education system and fuel economic growth in the wake of the pandemic, its legislators must follow Benjamin Franklin’s vision and join these voices to prioritize students’ basic needs.

We urge the chairs and vice chairs of the Education Committees — State Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), State Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny), State Rep. Curtis Sonney (R., Erie), and State Rep. Mark Longietti (D., Mercer) — to bring this bill to the floor for consideration to ensure Pennsylvania’s students have the resources they need to succeed in college, contribute to their local communities, and strengthen their state’s economy.

Rachel Sumekh is the founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, where Haley Schusterman is a national advocacy fellow.