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Food pantries pop up on college campuses for students struggling with hunger

“If I was home or writing papers or something, it would be frustrating if I’m hungry and can’t get anything to eat. You just have that hunger feeling and you focus on that.”

Colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing a long-hidden problem: students struggling to afford food.

Nearly half of students reported some issue securing food in the previous month, according to a study released in October; one in five students at four-year schools reported being hungry.

"I just, you know, sometimes I would eat two meals throughout the day," said a junior at West Chester University who asked not to be identified, to protect his privacy. "I would eat smaller ones, depending on how much I needed to spend on bills or whatever."

"If that week there was a lot of sales at the grocery store, I would eat a little more," he said.

West Chester University opened a student food pantry this school year, as did Rutgers-New Brunswick and Cabrini University. Montclair State University opened one last April, and Rowan University has one coming next month. Stockton University two years ago created a meal voucher program for students who could not afford food. Temple University and the College of New Jersey are exploring ideas.

"We're hitting a point where something has to change," said Tori Nuccio, the assistant director of financial aid at West Chester, who created the university's resource pantry for food, winter and professional clothes, and toiletries.

There have always been students in need, Nuccio said, but the number grew after the recession. And college costs have continued to grow without matching growth in financial aid, she said, leaving more students unable to afford everything.

The October study found widespread issues of food security across 38 schools in 12 states: 48 percent of respondents had trouble affording food in the previous month. One in four community college students were considered hungry, the study found, as were 20 percent of students at four-year schools.

"Folks are overtaxing themselves to be able to come to college. … Part of it is just the burden of the college education and cost of living is a lot," said Kerri Willson, who runs the Rutgers Student Food Pantry, which opened last fall. "And then I also think what we have in our mind as the stereotypical image of who a college student is is not a reality anymore."

A majority of food-insecure students have a paying job, and many have campus meal plans that cover only some meals.

Stockton's meal voucher program began after the then-student government president, Carl Archut Jr., noticed the same students showing up at events that involved food.

In February 2015, he led an effort to survey the campus.

The results were heartbreaking: Nearly half the students said they had gone hungry at least once the previous semester because there wasn't enough money for food; 41 percent said they had skipped meals or reduced meal sizes about once a month.

"I was sad that a lot of my fellow colleagues were dealing with that issue," said Archut, now a graduate student at Shippensburg University.

A one-time 0.5 percent increase in meal-plan costs last year netted $30,000 for the program, of which about $7,000 has been used to date, assisting 44 students.

Students apply to the program, and the committee that approves them also looks for associated problems, such as a family crisis or academic struggles. That process has matched several students with additional financial-aid opportunities, new living arrangements, or other existing on-campus support programs, said Craig Stambaugh, the associate dean of students.

"Our goal doesn't simply end at giving you food vouchers," Stambaugh said.

In the next few weeks, he said, Stockton will roll out an online application, which will protect students' privacy better than the walk-in process. The program has also been expanded to cover summer and winter breaks.

Other schools, such as Rowan University, have established food pantries where students can pick up supplies.

In a Rowan survey last spring, half of student respondents said they had cut meal sizes or skipped a meal during the semester.

"It was really prevalent among the students who moved off campus," said Rbrey Singleton, 19, a sophomore studying political science and a student trustee. "Because they tended to scrap their meal plans and save a few dollars, and as they get into the semester, their funds may dry up."

Singleton worked with Daniel Cardona, the Rowan student government president, on creating a resource center similar to the West Chester model, with a food pantry at its core and additional items as students need them.

Cardona emailed students last month and received more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to create the pantry. Last Monday, the student senate voted 100-0 to allocate $30,000 to the project. The center will open next month in the Rowan Boulevard Multipurpose Room.

At West Chester University, the resource center has given out 800 pounds of food since opening last semester. The pantry, which is largely funded by donations, also has winter clothes, professional clothes, and toiletries.

"It's a really great resource; I was glad that it's right here," said the junior who struggled to afford food after being kicked out of his home when he turned 18. Working one or two jobs gave him some money, he said, but it often wasn't enough.

He said he grew accustomed to ignoring the hunger when in the classroom — "I just knew that was my situation, so I try not to harp on being hungry."

At home, however, the hunger was harder to ignore. "If I was home or writing papers or something, it would be frustrating if I'm hungry and can't get anything to eat," he said. "You just have that hunger feeling and you focus on that."

Now, he brings food back from the pantry once a week, particularly staples such as cereal and canned foods so his food money can go toward fruits, vegetables, and meat.

Less hunger, less frustration.

"It just made it a little easier, knowing that other people … were willing to help," he said.