• A Stark Reality: Working to Address Food Insecurity Among College Students

    Like a row of dominos, poor nutrition or an inadequate amount of food for a college student can trigger a chain of events, resulting in low grades, sleeplessness, illness, relationship issues, and withdrawal from classes or college. For many students at Mt. Hood Community College – and at community colleges nationwide – getting enough food to support their busy schedules can prove difficult.

    MHCC student and employee Bobbie Hill
    stocks Barney's Pantry in the Student Union.

    It’s a well-known reality that many community college students survive on fixed incomes and must balance the needs of their family and work with the demand of classes, homework, and extracurricular activities. Some students struggle to feed their families, let alone themselves, while others live in a shelter or on the street and must cope with the daily reality of homelessness. For these students especially, a campus food pantry, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) support services, gap funding for unmet needs, and connections to additional on- and off-campus resources can mean the difference between passing and failing a class, between staying in college or dropping out, and between earning a degree or remaining trapped in a cycle of poverty.

    Food insecurity effects nearly 1 in 2 (or 42 percent of) community college students, according to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s 2018 study “Still Hungry and Homeless in College.” The same study found that 46 percent of community colleges are housing insecure, meaning they’re unable to afford rent or utilities and/or must move frequently. Some 12 percent of community college students were identified as homeless, meaning they live in a shelter, automobile, abandoned building, or similar environment.

    MHCC is committed to helping its most vulnerable students. The Student Union-based food pantry, Barney’s Pantry, serves the college’s students, offering a hot meal, snacks, toiletries and school supplies. Students can visit the pantry three times per week. During the 2017-18 school year, some 570 students visited Barney’s Pantry, resulting in a total of 1,678 visits. On any given weekday, 10 to 20 students visit the pantry.

    “Limited access to food impacts students here in a serious way,” said Bobbie Hill, a second-year MHCC student. “We have homeless students who come here, and they depend on Barney’s Pantry. Many live in their cars, so they use the microwave to heat up food for a hot meal.”

    “As a single mom, I can’t afford to eat in the cafeteria or the bookstore every day, so the pantry really helps,” added Hill. “There were days last term when I would begin working in the Student Union at 8 a.m. and finish my last class at 8 p.m. On those days, my only meal of the day might be one from the pantry.”

    Nursing student Joelle “Jojo” Lian agrees. She visits Barney’s Pantry three times per week to grab a cup of noodles for lunch or a snack to help her focus during class. The pantry provides her with a meal when she’s “really hungry,” allowing her to focus better in class and to save money.

    Barney’s Pantry depends on a combination of annual funding, gifts and donations to keep it stocked and operating. Each year, the Associated Student Government at MHCC sets aside approximately $9,000 to stock the pantry and purchase shelving and similar supplies. Regular college-wide food drives also ensure that Barney’s Pantry can meet demand.

    In early 2018, the MHCC Foundation donated $5,000 to establish a new location for the pantry in the Student Union and purchase shelving for the new space. The Foundation is now raising $10,000 to purchase a commercial refrigerator for this new space. The refrigerator will allow the pantry to store fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and other fresh food items, thus giving students the nutrition they need to remain focused and energized. Donations will also support an emergency assistance fund for students in need.

    More recently, the college partnered with the Oregon Food Bank (OFB). The partnership will ensure that the pantry remains stocked with nutritious food and fresh produce year-round. Additionally, the college can use funds to purchase reduced-cost food from the OFB.

    “We’re grateful for the partnership,” said Doctor Abio Ayeliya, MHCC’s student leadership and engagement coordinator. “It allows us to continue maintaining an environment where students feel a sense of belonging and support, and helps us meet students’ basic, nutritional needs.”

    Students struggling with food and housing insecurity can also find resources through the college’s Student Success Programs, a group of grant-funded initiatives and specialists serving students who identify as low-income, first-generation, or underserved. According to Bhaktirose Dawdy, MHCC’s SNAP Training and Employment Program (STEP) grant coordinator and the college’s Workforce Development specialist coordinator, the Student Success Programs focuses on three main areas: delivering college and career navigation, connecting students to on- and off-campus resources, and providing gap funding. Gap funding includes money to help pay for tuition, books, a month of rent, car repairs, and transportation.

    “For many of the students we serve, a setback like a flat tire or an expensive textbook can derail them, putting their entire college career in jeopardy,” said Dawdy. “We want to prevent that, and some money to temporarily bridge financial disruptions can often help considerably.”

    “As a single mom, I can’t afford to eat in the cafeteria or the bookstore every day, so the pantry really helps,” added Hill. “There were days last term when I would begin working in the Student Union at 8 a.m. and finish my last class at 8 p.m. On those days, my only meal of the day might be one from the pantry.”

    In 2018, the MHCC Foundation began earmarking $5,000 annually to support the STEP grant program. The STEP grant supports students from families eligible for Supplemental Assistant Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. Donated funds are matched by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service program.

    “This past year, the Foundation Board began looking at what it could do to better assist students faced with housing or food insecurity,” said Al Sigala, MHCC’s executive director of Development and Communications. “Board members decided that this annual contribution aligns well with the Foundation mission of providing assistance that supports student success.”

    From Oct. 25 through Nov. 15, the Student Union will host a fall food drive. You can bring your donations of unexpired, nonperishable canned or wrapped food, personal hygiene/toiletry products, and jackets to the Student Union front desk, or place them in the food pantry bins located around campus. The Student Union is open Monday – Thursday, 8 a.m. – 7 p.m., and Fridays from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

    If you’d like to give to the MHCC Foundation to support our students through Barney’s Pantry or the student emergency fund, visit mhcc.edu/Ways-to-Give.

    Doctor Abio Ayeliya, MHCC's student leadership and engagement coordinator, provides a tour of the food pantry.