Food Insecurity Pervades College Campuses

Packaged with care, Leo Food Pantry food boxes provide essential foods to ensure that recipients will not go hungry. Each bag contains food staples such as beans, pasta, peanut butter, and rice. / photo by Emily Alvarez

Packaged with care, Leo Food Pantry food boxes provide essential foods to ensure that recipients will not go hungry. Each bag contains food staples such as beans, pasta, peanut butter, and rice. / photo by Emily Alvarez

by Natalie Sirna
photography by Emily Alvarez

Adrianne Montero-Camacho has to have tough skin to do her job. As the University of La Verne Student Outreach and Support Case Manager, Montero-Camacho meets with students in crisis on a daily basis. She works with them to solve problems, many of which do not have simple solutions. Although she loves her work and is fervently dedicated to it, the magnitude of students’ problems can occasionally prove overwhelming. “I don’t meet with students because they’re having a good, easy time. Meeting after meeting is students saying, ‘I’m not OK. What can you do to help me?’ There are spaces that I need to pause and take care of myself when it’s overwhelming.” By far, food insecurity is the most common issue for which students seek out help. If you assume food insecurity only affects a small number of students, you would be wrong. The problem is much more prevalent than you think.

If you’re fortunate enough to have never wondered when your next meal will be, then you have not experienced food insecurity. Montero-Camacho defines the term as “Anyone who is unable to get the food that they need on a regular basis by themselves.” These are people who are experiencing difficulty stretching what little money they have to meet all their needs. Some skip meals or rely on outside support to feed themselves. They may ration meals in order to have enough money to get through the month. “Sometimes people prioritize paying rent so they have a home to live in, and that might mean they don’t have food that night, or for the whole week.”

College students are an extremely vulnerable group when it comes to being food insecure. According to a 2017 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “50% of community college students and 47% of four-year college students reported food insecurity. 25% and 20$ (respectively) had very low food security.” Tragically, many students face the dilemma of having to juggle good grades, earning an income, and having enough food for the week. It’s a stressful situation that far too many students are familiar with, but much of it has become normalized where students expect to have to make these difficult choices. Montero-Camacho raises the question, “How can we possibly expect our students to study for their exams and earn good grades when they don’t know the last time they ate, or the next time they will eat?”

Food insecurity is a symptom of a larger societal issue: the unrealistic expectation we place on college students to take care of themselves financially, mentally, and physically whilst being in school full-time. There is tremendous pressure on students to get food for themselves and their families, and an inability to do this can lead to depression and anxiety. A former University of La Verne student, who requested to remain anonymous, shares her experience with being food insecure. “Sometimes I would round up all the change I could find just to buy a bag of chips. That would be all I would eat that day. I couldn’t do my homework most days because I was so hungry.”

Asked about the expectation to maintain a livable income while succeeding in school, she responded, “I don’t think it’s reasonable at all. When school and work become our main priorities, it makes taking care of ourselves feel impossible.” She felt that her education could have helped her better prepare for the decisions she would have to make as a full time-student.  “It would have been helpful to have a class that talked about and promoted balance—not just in college, but starting in high school. Self care is a lifelong skill that you don’t just learn once and suddenly know everything.” Ultimately, she felt that her lack of financial literacy contributed to her distress. “There were many aspects of student life that I didn’t prepare for. You can’t prepare for everything of course, but  I didn’t feel like I knew what I was getting myself into financially.”

While many students may be able to rely on their families for financial help, Montero-Camacho points out that not everyone is privileged enough to have parental support. “If students are low income, chances are their parents are low income. Although their parents love and want to support them, they are just not capable of doing so financially.” This lack of support and scarcity of resources means students have to face tough decisions on their own. Contributing to this stress is the fact that a large portion of students are essential workers, low income, or both. The pandemic greatly exacerbated food insecurity by causing hundreds of thousands of students to lose their jobs and file for unemployment. As students’ wages took a hit, things got even harder for a group who was already struggling to make ends meet. “The income that was barely helping them get by went down to zero income. It was like this for months on end with no end in sight. It was out of the hands of our students.”

Along with being the Student Outreach and Support Case Manager, Adrianne Montero-Camacho is also the coordinator of the Leo Food Pantry, University of La Verne’s on-campus pantry that is available to students in need of food. The Leo Food Pantry provides monthly distributions of food boxes for anyone who signs up online to request one. The Pantry will then send an email, instructing students where to pick up their boxes. The large cardboard boxes include various canned goods and non-perishable items such as soup cans, granola bars, beans, pasta, and rice. Vegetarian boxes are available upon request. Also included are non-food items such as toilet paper and coffee filters.

Mark Ruiz, a third-year business administration major, has been a Leo Food Pantry student worker since his freshman year. As the main student lead, he is responsible for organizing monthly food box distributions and coordinating the daily operations of the pantry. He notes that all types of students utilize the pantry’s resources. “One month it can be mostly seniors, another month mostly freshmen. Other months, it’s a mix of all levels, and we even get a lot of graduate students.” However, Ruiz has observed many students feeling reluctant to ask for help and ashamed at the fact that they have to use the pantry. “When I first started working here, I noticed a bit of stigma from the students. People were embarrassed to ask for assistance. But the Leo Food Pantry really tries to erase that stigma and let people know that there’s no need to be embarrassed.”

Stigma surrounding food insecurity can be a major roadblock and prevents students from receiving the help they desperately need. The Leo Food Pantry is on a mission to change this culture of stigma and help reach more reluctant students. Before the pandemic, the Leo Food Pantry had an active presence on campus, and the Office of Student Life frequently sent emails alerting students of distribution times. Once the pandemic hit, the Leo Food Pantry became even more vital for a growing number of food insecure students. The large influx of people needing assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic somewhat normalized asking for help. However, there are still many students who feel ashamed or embarrassed at the fact that they are food insecure. Montero-Camacho wants students to know, “You are not the only one that’s experiencing this. The proof of that is the existence of the pantry itself. There was such a great need for it that we decided to create this entirely new program.”

There are several solutions to food insecurity, some easier to accomplish than others. After familiarizing himself with the issue of food insecurity at the Leo Food Pantry, Ruiz feels that lack of awareness contributes to food pantries being underfunded. “Erasing the stigma is a big part of solving food insecurity, but I feel like there needs to be more widespread awareness of the issue in the first place. If more people are aware and concerned about this issue, then food pantries everywhere can receive more funding.”

Even with the Leo Food Pantry, many students still go hungry. Oftentimes, the Pantry is not enough to provide for an entire family, and students have to seek out local resources such as food voucher programs. In the fight to end food insecurity, the importance of financial resources for students cannot be understated. There is a growing gap between the cost of living and the minimum wage in America, and students cannot be expected to keep up when they are paying for things like tuition and textbooks, which are expensive even for students who have financial assistance. It will take time to curb the systemic root of food insecurity, but educating the public and bringing awareness to the issue will ultimately lead to more funding for vital food assistance programs. Also needed are accessible financial literacy classes in high schools and higher education. This will better prepare future generations to be fiscally responsible young adults. In the meantime, there are hungry students in need of food. And even though it’s not easy, Montero-Camacho wants students to know, “Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of. If the help is there, why not take advantage of it?”