‘Can I have another bag of pasta?”
It was a hot August afternoon, and about 100 students had assembled for the monthly food pantry at Bunker Hill Community College. They were old, young, male, female, white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. Some had children, and many were the first in their families to go to college. Several had jobs. They all had one thing in common: They can’t afford both food and college.
The young man who had asked about taking a second pound of elbow macaroni was armed with two shopping bags and a backpack in the hopes that he could grab as much as possible as he made his way down the line. A food pantry volunteer had to turn him down. “I don’t know how much we will need today, so I can’t give you more,” she said.
As the man shuffled from table to table, picking up a can of spaghetti sauce, some carrots, and a five-pound bag of potatoes, a Bunker Hill administrator was rattling off statistics. Every month, about 120 low-income undergraduates take 5,000 pounds of groceries that are gone in less than an hour. Still, most months, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
When it comes to thinking about food and college, many are more familiar with “the freshman 15” than the possibility that a significant number of college students don’t have enough to eat. It’s a stunning juxtaposition: Colleges are hiking up tuition at a rate faster than inflation while their students are forced to trade off between taking classes and buying groceries. But even as students are taking out large loans to pay for college, the graduation rate is falling. There are a number of factors that explain this, and hunger is probably one of them. As one culinary arts major at Bunker Hill told me, “When you’re hungry in class, you’re not worried about the test you’re taking. You’re worried about where you’re going to find your next meal.”
It’s hard to say how big the problem is. But in the last few years, food banks have popped up at about 300 schools across the United States, including UCLA, Michigan State, and the University of Massachusetts Boston. Another 40 are expected to open in the next year. Still, despite a mounting heap of anecdotal evidence, neither the US Department of Education, which oversees federal disbursements to colleges and universities, nor the Department of Agriculture, which manages programs like food stamps, has taken steps to research the issue at the national level.
The few data points that are available indicate that college students experience hunger at a greater rate than the general population. In 2011, the City University of New York found that 39 percent of survey respondents did not have access to a consistent source of nutritious food. Earlier this year, the University of California system released a study with similar findings. One of the most comprehensive studies to date, a look at 10 community colleges published in December 2015, found that roughly 20 percent of respondents had gone hungry because of a lack of money. In comparison, an estimated 13 percent of households nationwide experience some level of food insecurity.
The best hope for quickly getting comprehensive data is for the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, to initiate a study. But a member of Congress needs to make a formal request. Massachusetts, a state that considers itself the center of the higher-education universe, should take the lead, and Senator Elizabeth Warren could play an important role. Indeed, three college presidents — Pam Eddinger from Bunker Hill, Patricia Gentile from North Shore Community College, and Ellen Kennedy from Berkshire Community College — have already urged her to prod the GAO into action. As Eddinger wrote to Warren in March, “Without sound national data and analysis, we will only be guessing at policy solutions.”
And, yes, we have to address the problem of hunger on college campuses. A generation ago, the combination of hard work and a publicly funded high school diploma was enough to sustain a middle class lifestyle. Now, we’ve sold low-income students on the idea that their ticket out of poverty is a four-year college education. That’s an expensive shift that moves the burden of education from the community to the individual at a time when median household income remains lower than it was 15 years ago. For the poor, a lack of food has the potential to derail the entire process.
Warren should push for the GAO study. The problem of hunger on college campuses is inextricably linked to the problems of income inequality and decreased socioeconomic mobility — issues that have defined her career.
The senator’s office did not return calls seeking to clarify whether she is pursuing a GAO study. However, Warren is said to be building a bipartisan coalition of senators before she makes the request, in the hope that reaching across the aisle will take the politics out of the issue.
In the meantime, schools like Bunker Hill will just continue to work on this problem one pound of pasta at a time.
Laura Colarusso is a member of the Globe staff. Follow her on Twitter @LauraColarusso.