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'Food Insecurity' Is A Growing Obstacle For College Students

Will James
Sequoia Conner, a student worker who staffs the University of Washington Tacoma food pantry

Expanding access to higher education is a core part of the mission at the University of Washington Tacoma, which had its commencement Monday. 

Many of the campus' students commute from nearby communities, 58 percent have parents without college degrees, and 73 percent receive financial aid.

"We have a lot of first-generation students," said Christine Stevens, a professor who teaches nursing and healthcare leadership. "It’s their first time on campus. We have a lot of immigrant and refugee students."

But that means many of the people trying to become the first person in their family to finish college are also grappling with a growing issue at U.S. campuses: "food insecurity." 

A third of UWT students meet the federal definition of food insecurity, meaning they sometimes face uncertainity about where their meals will come from, according to a survey performed several years ago by Stevens.

About 15 percent were "housing insecure," meaning they sometimes had to "couch surf" with friends or relatives. Eight percent were homeless. 

UWT's food insecurity numbers are in line with national figures. A survey of students across 66 colleges and universities last year showed more than a third dealt with food insecurity. 

Stevens blames the new economics of college, marked by rising costs and shrinking aid.

"A lot of us talk about, ‘We worked our way through college.’ You can’t do that anymore," she said. "These students have two or three jobs" and still struggle to support themselves. 

Stevens also pointed to a trend of colleges raising fees and prices due to declining government funding. "It was the perfect storm," she said. 

The numbers at UWT drove Stevens to launch the campus's first food pantry in 2015. Located in a converted closet of an academic building, it provides free food to an average of 25 students a week. 

Sequoia Conner, one of the student workers who staffs the pantry, also uses it on a regular basis.

"I will typically get rice, because I have a big family," she said. "Stuff like hot dogs. There’s also times where I didn’t have enough money to buy food for the day and had it not been for this, I wouldn’t have eaten before class."

Conner, a first-generation college student trying to become a special education teacher, lives with her mother and two sisters in Tacoma, and they often have other relatives staying with them as well. She said she keeps them in mind when she picks out the 10 food items she's allowed to take from the pantry at a time.

The shelves are also stocked with diapers for students who are raising children.

"Sometimes we feel that we’re alone in needing that extra assistance," Conner said. "But there’s a lot of students who come through the pantry."

Alissa Tu, a writing student from Olympia who lives in the UWT dorms and uses the pantry, said the price of food is just one factor. Accessibility is another. 

"When I first got here, I didn’t know where to go to find groceries or where to go to get food," Tu said.  She quickly realized the nearest grocery store was more than a walkable distance away.

"I heard about the pantry and I was like, ‘This might be a good way to not worry so much about having to worry about food,'" she said. 

Nedralani Mailo oversees the pantry as a university employee. But, just a year ago, she was graduating from UWT, making her the first person in her family to finish college.

She said the experience of college is different for first-generation students.

"There’s a lot of struggles and a lot of barriers that we face along with just trying to keep up with schoolwork," she said. "There’s a lot of family things that we deal with. Sometimes we’ve got to cut back on food items in order for us to do something else, pay bills."

Demand at the pantry is one measure of that struggle. Mailo said she spends $400 to $600 a month stocking the shelves. The money comes from donations, some of them from faculty and staff who contribute portions of their paychecks. 

"The needs of the students are huge, because once I put items on the shelf, they are gone the next day, or that day if anything," said Mailo, who said the pantry could benefit from a steadier stream of funding from the univeristy.

Stevens, meanwhile, is in the process of updating her survey of UWT students, and the preliminary results show a sharp increase: around half of respondents now qualify as food insecure. 

She said addressing that trend is necessary to fulfill the campus's mission.

"Access is not equity," Stevens said. "Just getting through the door is not equity. What equity is, is there’s some people who need a little bit more to achieve what everybody wants which is graduation and to move on to their next stage."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.