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Dinner or tuition? Food insecurity deepens on college campuses.

More students struggling amid soaring housing costs and inflation

Lateia Johnson, a health science divisions professor, handed food items to Javkhlan Batsaikhan as she helped her bag up items from the DISH Food Pantry at Bunker Hill Community College.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A growing number of Massachusetts college students are struggling to feed themselves and their families as soaring housing costs and inflation drain resources and pandemic emergency programs wind down, hunger advocates and students say.

Private colleges and universities, in particular, are facing calls to increase access to food for students who are juggling living, education, and food costs.

“It’s not talked about as much since we are a private university and there are a lot of students with wealth on campus,” said Chidima Asikaburu, a fourth-year student at Northeastern University. “But many low-income students come with scholarships that cover tuition and maybe housing, but often it doesn’t cover all the needs that we have.”

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Asikaburu found herself in a precarious financial situation during her sophomore year, when she learned she was eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She then created a guide of state and federal resources to help other low-income students but did not find much help from the university.

Students are more likely to drop out of school or see their grades fall if they are hungry, research shows. In Massachusetts, a group of advocates formed the Hunger Free Campus Coalition in late 2019 with the goal of passing legislation to strengthen the response to campus food insecurity on public campuses across the state.

Advocates are hopeful the legislation, which would provide state colleges with grant funding and technical assistance to address food insecurity, will pass on Beacon Hill in the coming days. The Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative is pending before the Senate Ways and Means committee, and the sponsors believe it will pass in the informal session. The bill would also ensure more eligible students are aware of government-sponsored food assistance programs such as SNAP.

If it does not pass, supporters said they will refile in January. Similar legislation has passed in other states including Maryland, California, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, according to advocates.

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“We need to create a system-wide approach that assures that best practices are adopted and we don’t just have a hodgepodge of well-intentioned initiatives that are leaving some students behind,” said Representative Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors. “The hope is that public colleges will set an example for everyone else.”

New research found that community colleges and four-year public colleges provide more resources to address food insecurity than private universities. Students, advocates, and researchers said some private colleges have long neglected hunger on their campuses, fearing the public stigma associated with poverty and potential brand damage.

But that is starting to change, as student populations become outspoken about their needs.

At Northeastern, student Joshua Sisman has been advocating for more affordable meal plans for students and improvements to a program that allows students to donate unused swipes into the dining hall to those in need. A Northeastern student government survey last year found that 26 percent of 1,225 students who responded said they have experienced food insecurity in the previous year.

“Food insecurity is a really, really big issue on campus,” said Sisman, a senior and chair of The Northeastern chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America.

Northeastern currently charges $4,405 for its unlimited meal plan, more than most other Boston-area colleges. The YDSA chapter launched a campaign called “No Hungry Huskies,” which has received more than 2,400 signatures to urge the university to reduce its meal plan prices, among other changes.

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The efforts have garnered the administration’s attention. Sisman said he now meets regularly with Northeastern’s director of dining services and a representative from dining contractor Chartwells to discuss how to address food insecurity and create more affordable dining options for all students.

“Through our campaign and our awareness work, we’ve been able to get them to commit to quite a few things,” Sisman said. “The collective student support has really made a world of difference.”

Northeastern officials said in a recent interview that the university is expanding resources to ease food insecurity, including building a community of faculty and staff members who are on the lookout for students who might be struggling, a program to minimize food waste in the dining hall, and an expansion of the meal swipe donation program to graduate students. There is not a food pantry on campus, although one student group operates a community fridge.

“Our goal is to make sure that no student who says they’re hungry will go hungry,” said Madeleine Estabrook, Northeastern’s head of student affairs.

Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit that was started in 2010 by a group of students at University of California Los Angeles and now works with about 500 colleges across the country, conducted a survey of 352 college campuses in 2021 and found that 45 percent of those schools had opened food pantries in the previous five years. Meanwhile, a report published by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in March 2021 found that 29 percent of students at four-year colleges experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to the survey.

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Some public colleges in Massachusetts have been working to help hungry students for years. Bunker Hill Community College, for example, had provided free food to its students before establishing an official food pantry in 2019 with a $50,000 donation from the student government. Wick Sloane, retired Bunker Hill Community College professor said he would bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other snacks to his classes in case students were hungry.

“Denial by state and civic leaders, for years, is disgraceful,” Sloane said.

The college’s pantry, called the DISH, this year added refrigerated lockers that allow students to pick up food at a time that’s most convenient without worrying about perishable items.

About 200 to 220 students use the pantry each month, said Molly Hansen, DISH Food Pantry Coordinator. Diapers and baby formula are among the pantry’s most popular items, Hansen said.

Leany Belteton, a nursing student at Bunker Hill who lives in Everett, depends on the pantry each month for food and supplies for her three children. Belteton, 44, works two jobs on top of school.

“It’s not a living wage — it’s really not enough,” said Belteton, who immigrated from Guatemala with her parents when she was 9. “I feel more at peace knowing I have that food and supplies for my family [from the college].”

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Likewise, Luis Pinto-Jimenez, a student at Holyoke Community College, frequently uses the campus pantry and market, which the college says was the first in the state to accept SNAP benefits.

“Oh my God, it’s been a lifesaver,” Pinto-Jimenez said. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to take a break in between my different math classes to just eat something and it makes everything so much better. Math doesn’t make sense when you’re hungry.”


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.