Wilfredo Melendez said he had never needed charity before. But last summer, after leaving the Army and enrolling in Bunker Hill Community College, things started to unravel. He couldn’t find a part-time job to make ends meet. He got divorced. His wife moved out of state, leaving him to care for their 6-year-old son.
Last week, the 30-year-old was facing “streaky’’ finances, he said. Finals were looming. His little boy needed to eat.
So when a team of volunteers from the Greater Boston Food Bank showed up at Bunker Hill on May 2 bearing produce and frozen meats, Melendez took “pretty much one of everything they had,’’ went home, and made himself and his son a dinner of sweet potatoes and pork chops. It might as well have been Thanksgiving, he said: “I was so grateful.’’
So were 281 other Bunker Hill students who walked away from campus with 10,400 pounds of food, enough to make 7,000 meals.
Bunker Hill is one of many colleges confronting campus hunger, an issue that has failed to make its way into mainstream discussion even as debate swirls in the state Legislature about reforms to the community college system.
The problem has intensified as adults, often out of work and with families to feed, flock to community colleges for retraining - and as the colleges look for new ways to keep those students in school.
“A lot of students don’t do too well on tests simply because they’re not eating right. But students who eat well can test well,’’ said Stephenson Aman, Bunker Hill’s 27-year-old student government president, who “grabbed some carrots and potatoes and a little yogurt, but not too much’’ for himself from the food bank.
At least two other Massachusetts community colleges are trying new approaches to ensure their students are well-fed.
North Shore Community College is raising money for a fund to give students emergency $7 vouchers to its cafeteria, and Greenfield Community College opened a food bank last year after noticing that free snacks at a campus event disappeared at a frighteningly rapid clip.
The food bank has now served 1,000 students, and this semester, the school doubled its hours.
“We’re delighted to have one,’’ said Greenfield president Bob Pura, “and sad that it’s so popular.’’
Other schools across the country have opened food banks for students since the recession began. Owens Community College in Ohio started two in February, one for each of its campuses, to help students who are not eligible for food stamps.
The University of Georgia, that state’s flagship public school, put one in place late last year.
Although Bunker Hill’s giveaway last week lasted only a few hours, the Boston food bank will hold another event on campus June 20 and is working with the school to set up a permanent pantry by fall.
Going where hungry students are makes sense, said Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Boston bank.
“Bunker Hill is accommodating people who are trying to retool their skill sets. These are the people we want to help,’’ D’Amato said. “But they’re not going to be able to go to the food pantry downtown, because they’re busy taking classes or picking up their kids.’’
Kathleen O’Neill, who coordinates outreach programs at Bunker Hill, said students had told her as much.
Many do not have cars, and some are so otherwise burdened that hunger is not even a worry so much as a hum in the background.
“Just today, I talked to one woman whose husband works two jobs. They have three little kids, they’re paying rent with a credit card, and they’re going to have to move out of the place at the end of the month,’’ O’Neill said. “Food, of course, is an issue, but so is housing. So is everything.’’
Many of the students who went to the campus food bank - and a few Charlestown residents who showed up, too - are trying to support families. Robin Graham, a 48-year-old grandmother, lives with 10 family members including her son, his wife, and their 8-month-old infant.
“I promised my mother before she passed away that I would get my degree,’’ Graham said.
So when Graham was laid off from a job at Tufts University, she signed up for a double major at Bunker Hill. For now, she makes do on food stamps.
“It’s hard. People ask me why I don’t just claim bankruptcy,’’ she said. “But I’ve got faith that something good will come up. I try not to let it get me down too much.’’
Some students don’t realize they are eligible for food stamps - which, in any case, can’t be used to buy prepared food in the school cafeteria or anywhere else. Others know they qualify but don’t want to sign up for fear of stigma.
The same attitude may keep them from using food banks, said Lorenis Lianaro, 21, a Bunker Hill student who hopes to become a medical sonographer.
Lianaro, who just moved into her own apartment in Dorchester after four months in a Peabody homeless shelter, said she understood the attitude but didn’t approve of it.
“What I’d tell people is, ‘Don’t ever think you’re too good for help. Don’t be ashamed,’ ’’ she said. “If the help is there, take it.’’
At the recent giveaway, students were given plain grocery bags - “regular recyclable ones that don’t scream ‘food bank,’ ’’ said Bunker Hill professor Wick Sloane - and served by a volunteer corps of faculty and staff.
Sloane, who wrote a column about student hunger in March for the website Inside Higher Ed, said he had been “overwhelmed with inquiries from around the whole country’’ after it appeared.
There were two types of responses, Sloane said: some people say it’s about time the issue is in the spotlight; others are shocked that the problem exists.
“When we think about it,’’ he added, “we’re pretty shocked too. But we deal with it every day. It has just become what we do.’’