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NH Health

College students are struggling to get enough to eat. The growing problem is largely invisible.

“When you think about the food insecure, college students usually don’t come to mind first,” said Tania Marino, culinary director at Gather Café at Great Bay Community College

Maureen Beaupre shopped for food at the Gather Pantry Market in Portsmouth, N.H.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

CONCORD, N.H. — Volodymyr Lysianskyi had paid his rent and college classes, but what about his food?

“It’s an everyday fear that you might not have enough money for food,” said Lysianskyi, an engineering student at Great Bay Community College. “It’s a pretty scary situation sometimes.”

Like many college students who have faced food insecurity, Lysianskyi isn’t a traditional college student. He came to the US as a refugee from Ukraine in 2022 and now lives in Portsmouth. Affording food has gotten easier since he was able to get a job working at a restaurant. But he sees other students struggling, a problem some aid organizations said is growing on college campuses, even as it remains largely invisible to the broader community.

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Both Gather Café at Great Bay Community College and a food bank run by the University of New Hampshire have reported more students seeking help with food this year.

“The problem is definitely rising,” said Tania Marino, who works as the culinary director at Gather Café, which offers discounted and complimentary food to students at Great Bay Community College. The café started serving students during summer 2022.

Marino said the need has greatly increased this year. On average, the café is serving 40 percent more discounted meals a month compared to this time last year. About 15 percent of students receive complimentary meals, a 20 percent increase compared to last year.

It’s not just college students: the café is part of a pantry that serves other members of the community, averaging 9,100 people per month, an 11 percent increase from fiscal year 2023 and a 38 percent increase from fiscal year 2022.

But the struggle college students face is uniquely hidden.

“When you think about the food insecure, college students usually don’t come to mind first,” Marino said.

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People often imagine a “traditional” college student: someone who is right out of high school, has a meal plan, and who may still have parental support paying their bills. Not all students fit that description, including many community college students.

Marino said the students she works with are often adults. Some are parents who are supporting children. They’re working less hours in order to go to school, hoping the short-term financial sacrifice will pay off with a better paying job down the road.

“It’s families that are having to choose between feeding their kids and heating their homes and putting gas in their car,” Marino said. “It’s pretty bad right now.”

Survey data shows there are higher rates of food insecurity at two-year institutions than four-year institutions, according to Jesse Stabile Morrell, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire who studies nutrition and food insecurity on college campuses.

On average, about 25 to 30 percent of college students nationwide experience food insecurity, Stabile Morrell said, noting that in some places it’s as high as 50 percent.

At the University of New Hampshire, Patty Mathison is a basic needs coordinator and case manager, a role the university recently created that involves helping students who may face food insecurity. Mathison started in 2022. In April 2022, the school opened a food bank called Cat’s Cupboard at both the Durham and Manchester campuses.

She said there was such an increase in need this semester that the pantry’s hours were expanded from two days a week to five. It’s open to any student or faculty member who wants to use it, with no eligibility requirements.

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Mathison said the university’s Manchester food bank is struggling to keep its shelves stocked to keep up with the need. She believes the rising cost of living is driving an increase in food insecurity on campus. While students who live on campus are required to have a meal plan, students who live off campus and graduate students are not.

“Many of the students I see are working multiple jobs, they’re taking care of family, going to class, and incredibly resilient, and then something may happen like a car accident or some type of emergency,” said Mathison. That leaves them facing an impossible choice: “Do I pay for my car? Or do I pay these medical bills? Or do I pay for food?”

Some expenses are non-negotiable, like rent. But with food, Lysianskyi said, he found ways to cut costs: he could save on meals like lunch or dinner by skipping fresh foods: vegetables, fruit, and meat and instead buying canned products. That took a toll. Research shows it can be harder to learn while hungry.

“I see a lot of these people who are struggling financially, and I feel like it interferes in general with their life experience and with their studies in particular,” he said.

Here is a map of locations where you can get food if you are experiencing food insecurity. Both Gather and Cat’s Cupboard accept money and food donations.

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Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.