Nell Roach was hungry. Again. It hit her like this often. She hadn’t been able to get enough to eat the day before, and around 2 p.m. her body started demanding food. Her stomach hurt. She couldn’t concentrate in her classes at Metro State University.
Maybe there would be a school event she could breeze through and grab some cookies. In more desperate times, she and her roommate would go to a grocery store at the end of the night, and if they timed it right, grab the food discarded in the Dumpster. Roach, a 28-year-old anthropology student, is solemn when she mentions this. It works if you can get to the Dumpster in time, she said.
MSU has a food pantry, too. It opened in 2012 in the Tivoli building and Roach has gone there a few times to grab a can of tuna, a box of pasta, or, if they have it, a piece of fruit.
She said she used to be a vegetarian, but she had to make exceptions to meet her nutritional needs. Canned tuna gave her the protein she needed. She’s had to be resourceful, frugal and self-disciplined.
“Sometimes it’s skipping meals on one day, so you can have a full lunch on the other,” Roach said.
Roach is far from alone. Numerous Colorado colleges and universities are grappling with student hunger. At least eight campuses have opened food pantries, four of them in the last five years. (The Colorado Independent reached out to 10 universities in various parts of the state. The two that do not have brick-and-mortar food pantries, Colorado State University-Fort Collins and the University of Colorado-Boulder have other food assistance programs for their students, including a mobile food pantry.)
Just last week, Regis University held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new pantry. Father Mark McGregor spoke to a circle of people gathered in Regis’s Dayton Memorial Library. Immediately after the ceremony, a student was welcomed into the pantry, a room in the library lined with shelves of canned vegetables, peanut butter, noodles and hygiene products.
McGregor, who was instrumental in launching the private Jesuit college’s food pantry, has been the director of military and veteran services at the university for five months. He was a military chaplain for seven years before that. But earlier, he’d taught full-time at two different universities. Upon returning to higher education this year, he said he was surprised at the growth in college-age students experiencing hunger and an inability to afford regular, nutritious meals.
“We didn’t have the same kind of concerns [10 years ago] that we do now have today,” McGregor said.
Coby Wikselaar, a Harding Fellow focusing on hunger and homelessness at CU-Denver, said food insecurity largely affects students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students of color. The lack of regular meals they might have experienced in their lives off campus can follow them on campus, where meal plans are expensive. With college costs going up every year, students with limited means, even if they are working — as many do — are forced to make hard choices.
“College-level hunger and homelessness is a really powerful representation of how deeply we’re setting future generations up to fail,” Wikselaar said.
Students who skip meals or don’t eat enough are more likely to have lower Grade Point Averages than other students, according to a study published in 2014 in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice. And many students are going hungry.
In 2015, 184 food pantries were registered nationally with the College and University Food Bank Alliance. As of September 2018, there were 686.
Red Rocks Community College, which has had a pantry for at least 13 years, sees an average of 100 students per week. Community College of Denver’s pantry, now more than 7 years old, serves 300 students per semester. Metro State’s food pantry sees 40 to 50 students per week, and, according to supervisor Erica Quintana-Garcia, the number is growing. CU-Denver’s pantry opened in 2010 and sees about 100 students per month. The number of students using Colorado Mesa University’s pantry has grown since it opened in 2012, from just a few to about 20 per week, according to supervisor Rose Willett.
A 2013 Colorado State University survey found approximately 10 percent of its students experienced food insecurity, meaning they lack access to consistent, healthy food. Last year, its mobile food pantry had 2,264 unique visitors and about 50 percent visited more than once, according to Jennifer Johnson, assistant director of the Office for Student Leadership, Involvement, and Community Engagement at CSU.
A national survey of 43,000 students by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab released earlier this year indicates that 36 percent of college students are food insecure. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 14 percent of U.S. households struggle with food insecurity. For students, the HOPE Lab study says, that percentage is more than double.
‘A hard time just living here’
One huge factor in food insecurity is the rise in housing costs, advocates and students facing food insecurity say. As rents have risen in Colorado, students are forced to spend more money on housing and less on food.
The HOPE lab study found that, among the surveyed students, 46 percent of community college and 36 percent of university students faced housing uncertainty and insecurity in the past year. The increasingly unattainable cost of an apartment forced Roach to live with multiple friends and to move constantly. She says that often the physical address she used for paperwork was not the same as where she would sleep at night.
“The first two years I was a student went pretty smoothly, until the housing market changed,” Roach said. “The cost of living increased from my initial $650 price to $675, then it raised to like $950.”
Austin Kennedy, a student at CSU in Fort Collins, said at one point last year he had to ask his friends for a loan just to pay for groceries for the rest of the month. He said he was working 20 hours a week at a minimum wage job, on top of taking 18 credit hours and an internship. He spent his first year of school at the University of Kansas where, he said, rent was $200 to $300 a month less than it is at CSU.
“The cost of living is huge. It’s not like food is much more expensive here, but the rent itself just eats away at your budget,” Kennedy said.
Courtney McRae Crawford began school at CU-Denver in the fall of 2016, after being homeless for more than five years. She had saved up enough money to rent a room at a hostel and then an apartment, but even working full time as a cook, most of her money went to rent.
She relied on the food pantry at CU-Denver, she said, but it wasn’t enough. She had to go to three or four food banks per week to get enough food.
Snack stops and food pantries are often not enough, said Eneri Rodriguez, associate director of the Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy at Metro State. The institute supplements the food pantry by offering a place for students to get snack foods, such as crackers or fruit, and use a kitchen. She said food insecurity among students is reaching a critical point, driven by exponential increase in the price of living in Denver.
“Students are having a hard time paying tuition and getting through school, but they are also having a hard time just living here in Denver,” Rodriguez said.
The issue is complex, said CSU’s Johnson. One side of the equation sees rising housing and tuition costs. But, she said, the university has also upped its recruitment and retention efforts, and that has brought in more students who need additional support, including food assistance.
A growing awareness
Food pantry directors and others who study the issue of food insecurity say it’s hard to know how much of the recent growth in food pantries and other food-assistance programs is the result of more student need and how much is the result of much greater awareness and outreach.
“I think it’s hard to know if the problem existed for a long, long time before we started doing something,” said Johnson, who works with CSU’s Rams Against Hunger program.
CSU began with a “meal swipe” program in the fall of 2015. Students who meet income requirements can receive 75 free meals per semester on their student ID card, which they can use, or swipe, at any dining hall. CSU then added other initiatives such as bringing federal- benefits-eligibility technicians and monthly mobile food pantries onto campus.
Willett, a scholarship mentor who supervises the food pantry at Colorado Mesa University, said the need for food has increased since the pantry opened in 2012. Some of that growth, she said, is due to her efforts to reach out to students who’ve been in the foster care system and students coming from Job Corps — a free educational and job training service run by the Department of Labor.
“A lot of those students just don’t have the family support,” Willett said.
She said other students the pantry often helps are older and have experience in the workforce but are seeking a degree to improve their living conditions. Before they began school, students often were working two or more jobs but had to cut down their hours for classes.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the food pantry at Community College of Denver bustled with activity. Jesus Robledo, a CCD student and office assistant, handed a box of Honey Nut Cheerios to a woman and makes note of it on a page in a three-ring binder. The woman, one of four students who visited the pantry in the next half hour, scanned floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with canned soup, oatmeal, granola bars, fruit cups and boxes of macaroni and cheese.
CCD’s food pantry is generally open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. While some pantries are limited to shelf-stable foods, others, like CCD’s, offer refrigerated and frozen foods as well as hygiene products.
“Some students just want snacks to get through class, and they’re good to go. Others look for a complete meal,” said Kathryn Mahoney, CCD’s director of student life. Tuna and ready-made items that don’t require cooking have been popular lately, she said.
CCD gets its funding for the student pantry from student fees. Other schools’ food assistance programs rely on grants, donations and partnerships with food banks.
CCD limits students to six items per week and, like the other pantries, doesn’t require students show their income. Some pantries use a point-based system to limit students’ food allotment; food items are assigned point values based on size and cost. Students choose food until they reach the point limit for the week. Other pantries, like CCD, simply let students choose a set number of food items from their shelves per week. Regis University tries to send students away with enough food for two days’ worth of meals.
Food pantries are the first line of defense against food insecurity, according to Wikselaar. But the underlying causes — housing costs, rising tuitions, stagnating wages — are much larger problems Colleges, Wikselaar said, are in a position to help lead the conversation over these larger social and economic issues to drive changes in off-campus policies.
College campuses can be a canary in a coal mine. They are places that interact with the larger society and offer evidence, she said, that illogical state and federal policy priorities are “making it impossible for some people to survive.”
This is Nell Roach’s last semester in school, and her face lights up at the thought. It has taken her six years, time in which she has had to be resourceful and resilient, but she will graduate with a degree in anthropology. She said she sometimes wishes that she would have asked for help more often. Shame often kept her silent, she said.
“It’s interesting that even though I feel that I’ve done a lot in my personal past to prevent hunger and homelessness from being a part of my reality, that it still is a reality for me,” Roach said.
She is grateful for the resources available on campus. Without them, Roach said, she may never have graduated.