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College & COVID

How the pandemic worsened food insecurity among college students

Researchers estimate half of the students at typical community colleges don’t get enough to eat, or enough healthy meals. These schools are working to help.

The Bunker Hill Community College food pantry.
The Bunker Hill Community College food pantry.Jakob Menendez

On a chilly November morning, Genevieve Schuh, a senior studying political communication at Emerson, stood in line for the first time at a community fridge in the Fenway. “I felt really scared,” Schuh says. “I was worried about presenting like an upper-middle-class person who might be taking something from someone else.”

Schuh, who needs a cane to walk long distances, ached all over after the 30-minute one-way walk from home. The 21-year-old has a weakened immune system and contends with chronic illness. Even before COVID-19 gripped Boston and the world, Schuh couldn’t afford three meals a day at Emerson’s dining hall, but could get two meals a day and fruit for snacks on campus — enough to get by.

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More people everywhere are going hungry since the pandemic started. In October, the nonprofit Feeding America estimated that the rate of food insecurity in Massachusetts had jumped 59 percent from 2018 to 2020 — the biggest percentage spike in the country. The need is acute for college students who might otherwise have access to campus food pantries like the one at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which is now limited to curbside pickup because of COVID. (A 2018 assessment found that 2 out of every 5 UMass Boston students experienced food insecurity.)

Researchers estimate that half of the students at typical community colleges don’t get enough to eat, or enough healthy meals. At Bunker Hill Community College, students can turn to its DISH Food Pantry. “Students who consistently struggle with food insecurity describe the pantry as a ‘life changer’ for staying in school,” says pantry coordinator Molly Hansen. Because 2 out of 3 students at Bunker Hill are parents, Hansen also makes sure the pantry stocks diapers and baby food.

Carlos E. Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, wants to eliminate the stigma of needing help getting enough to eat while going to college. “You can’t call yourself an education state, when on the one hand you have among the most premier higher education [institutions] on the planet,” he says, “and at the same time, you have large swaths of your population, particularly in gateway cities, that are being left behind.”

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In a February letter sent to 94,000 public college students in the state, Santiago wrote about the federal government’s COVID-related expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, and encouraged students to sign up if they qualify. “There is no ‘shame’ in using SNAP,” he wrote. “It’s how I fed my family when I was a graduate student in college years ago. Without it, I would have had to drop out of school.”

Santiago says COVID exposed a need for a collaborative approach to higher education across state agencies, like when homeless community college students were offered housing at state university dorms that would otherwise not have been used because of the pandemic. “We never did that before,” Santiago says. He adds that a task force is working on a plan to address not only food insecurity, but mental health, transportation, child care, housing, and other basic needs that some college students require.


This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Mitty Mirrer is pursuing a master’s degree. Send comments to magazine@globe.com

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