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Surrounded by Plenty, Many College Students Are Going Hungry

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

On almost every college campus, there are dining halls and cafeterias filled to the brim with food. Students have their pick of practically anything they want. And yet, a surprisingly high percentage of these young people are hungry.

Grand View University senior Shannon Kaster is not your typical undergraduate college student. To begin, the Boone-native is 33-years-old.

“I’m married, I have a four-year-old son at home and I’m pregnant with another one due in July,” she says.

But she is experiencing something that is becoming all too common on campuses nationwide.

“I personally have struggled with food insecurity for a long time,” she says.

Which means, she lacks reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. Results from at least two national surveys show Kaster is far from alone. Around a third of students at four-year schools, and two-out-of-three who attend community colleges, are food insecure. This distracts from their studies, says Jed Richardson, who researches college affordability at the HOPE Lab of the University of Wisconsin.

“If you’re really hungry, it’s hard to focus on school," he says. "Or if you’re working a lot. We know that students who are working more than 20 hours a week are not doing as well in school.”

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
Wade Robinson, the interim executive director of student services at DMACC, says students who are food insecure are not easy to see.

The HOPE Lab was behind one of the national studies, which involved 33,000 community college students at 70 schools in 24 states. Des Moines Area Community College was one of the cooperating institutions. DMACC’s interim executive director of student services, Wade Robinson, says administrators are keeping a close lookout for students showing signs they’re underfed.

“They’re not easy to see," he says. "But, if you know the signs to look for, and we can educate our faculty and staff, we can quietly support students and get them connected to resources, and that’s important.”

They may be tardy to classes, or skipping them altogether, he says. Meanwhile, students are taking on the problem of food insecurity head-on. A food pantry at Iowa State provides for about 600 clients a year. ISU, along with Drake University, and Cornell, Simpson and Grinnell colleges, belong to the Food Recovery Network, which gathers leftovers from dining halls and banquets for the hungry. At Mercy College of Health Sciences in Des Moines, students have installed a cabinet stocked with food. Senior Taylor Coakley sees signs it’s being used.

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
Taylor Coakley, a senior at Mercy College of Health Sciences, says the food cabinet at the school is being used.

“There’s stuff missing from it, which is a great thing," she says. "People are taking what they need, and there’s even a donation box to the left of it, and there’s stuff in there, too.”

The student in charge of Next Course, the Food Recovery Network chapter at Drake, brings a personal connection to the job. Gabrielle Miller grew up the oldest of four daughters of a single mom working a waitress job in Kansas City. This led to her own food insecurity. She doesn’t talk about it much.

“I think a lot of times there’s kind of a stigma attached in any situation to needing benefits or being in a situation where you need help,” she says.

Miller says she’s managing the private-school tuition at Drake with scholarships and federal loans. Back at Grand View, Shannon Kaster, says she couldn’t manage her killer schedule that combines school, work and family without government assistance. She receives financial help for childcare and food. To ensure a supply of fresh vegetables, she’s putting her food stamps to creative use.

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
Gabrielle Miller, a junior at Drake University, doesn't talk much about her personal experiences with food insecurity.

“We have a garden at home," she says. "We’re able to buy seeds for our garden with food stamps, which is amazing. I hope more people do it than just us.”

The studies into hunger on college campuses say they provide a portrait of a group of people trying hard and falling short. They call for more investments in food assistance programs for these young people.