Many students attending American colleges and universities are chronically hungry. NPR reported on that in January, citing a government report that looked at 31 studies. It estimated that a third of college students regularly don't get enough to eat.
Those numbers are similar to the situation at Eastern Washington University, where students are taking finals.
For some of these students, tests and papers may not be the only thing weighing on their minds. Many of these students are hungry.
Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as an “economic and social condition of limited access to food.”
According to a 2016 health and wellness survey conducted at EWU, 36% of EWU students are food insecure. This is about double the average American households that are food insecure.
"We really recognize food insecurity among our students as a serious issue," said EWU President Mary Cullinan.
She says people are often surprised that students are hungry because the stereotype college student comes from a wealthy, upper-class family.
"I think it’s an age-old prejudice, if you will, that college is somehow for the elite. And many people still miss the point that a community college, and a public institution like Eastern, is an access institution," she said.
Many campuses across the country, including EWU, have turned to food pantries to address the issue. At Eastern, there are seven of them, in the form of cabinets, spread out across campus.
Brian Davenport is EWU’s director of community engagement. His office helped form the pantries a year ago. He told me unstaffed cabinets were chosen so they could be open whenever the building they are located in is open. He also said having them unstaffed makes them more inviting to students who feel awkward using the pantry.
I’m opening the food pantry cabinet in Isle Hall. There are three shelves, and they are all full of food. On the top shelf there’s a bag of hot dog buns. A few bags of dried beans for soup. A few cans of chili. Below that I see lots of cans of vegetables. Here’s a box of, let’s see, hamburger helper. There’s a few bags of pasta and below is some pasta sauce. There’s actually plenty here to prepare some meals. Noticeably absent though are fresh-food items, which limits the amount of healthy options the pantry can offer.
Later I asked Davenport about this.
“We’re actually going to be opening a centralized location because the primary drawback of the cabinet system is we can’t have refrigeration. Which means we can’t have ‘fresh.’ When we open the centralized location we’ll have refrigeration. So we’ll be able to have meat, produce, dairy. We’ll have those other pieces of a diet that don’t come out of a can," Davenport said.
Even when that opens, the cabinets won’t close.
Food for the cabinets comes from Second Harvest and donations from staff and students.
“We’ve done this without any student money or any institutional money, it’s all been fundraised. Which I’m delighted about. We’ve got some really good sponsors," President Cullinan said.
School officials are not the only people addressing the problem. EWU’s student body president, Dante Tyler, volunteers with the Washington Student Association, a student-lobby organization based in Olympia.
“One of the things that fell onto me was food insecurity. I said, ‘that’s interesting, I never thought about that, let me do research on that,'" Tyler said.
He has been focusing his efforts on trying to make food stamps more accessible to college students.
“One thing I’ve been pushing for very heavily is a waiver for SNAP benefits. Right now you need 20 hours of work time to qualify for food stamps or SNAP benefits, but you are only allowed to work 19 hours a week as a college student if you work for the school,” he said.
Unlike the food pantries, Tyler’s solution would involve using tax dollars. He says it’s worth it if it means feeding hungry students.
“The cultural idea that we can’t use tax payers’ money to help people with their very minimal needs is very disheartening to me. Politically and morally, that’s sad to me,” he said.