Clicking her pink glitter pen, twenty-year-old Maria Rodriguez opens a day planner with the words “I am very busy” printed on the cover. Inside, all the important dates a second-year Connecticut community college student needs to keep track of are recorded in sparkling pink ink. Class schedules, exam dates, and paper deadlines are all accounted for alongside numerous club activities and college events. “I try to keep track of any events or activities that might have free food,” she says, flipping through the pages, pausing at days she marked as an opportunity to make up for meals missed at home.
Sadly, Rodriguez’s experience is not atypical. With over one in eight Connecticut residents confronting food insecurity, Rodriguez’s daily struggle to find enough to eat highlights the plight of many students struggling to balance the demands of college life with everyday necessities. Nearly half of the over four hundred thousand food insecure Connecticut residents do not qualify for federal nutrition programs like SNAP, so they must pinch pennies to survive. It’s a delicate balancing act between paying the rent and buying enough food, with food often ending up a casualty.
Despite Rodriguez’s drive to succeed, her struggle with hunger defines the decisions she makes each day. In every class, she seeks out the back row and hopes her hunger pangs don’t betray her, though that strategy sometimes fails. “There’s a woman I sit next to in my English 102 class who is really nice. She passes me a bag of peanuts before the start of class every day.”
“This is a systemic problem.”
Most of the time though, Rodriguez goes from event to event making a meal out of whatever food is served. She wraps and stores anything that won’t spill or go bad before she can get home, like donuts and pastries, in her Goodwill backpack next to her textbooks and a pencil case stuffed with pink glitter pens. Not every event offers a welcoming opportunity though: “Some of the guys at the Male Encouragement Network always give me a ‘you’re not a guy’ look when I stop for the free pizza they pass out.”
The difficulty for Rodriguez began in 2013 soon after her parents moved into their first home, finally leaving behind a string of apartments too small for Rodriguez and her three siblings. Six months after settling into their dream home, her father had an accident at his factory job that left him partially disabled from a spinal injury and unable to pay the mortgage. Now five years later the family is back in an apartment, but even with her mother’s full-time job, making the rent is a struggle. Monthly bills are a common worry for food insecure students, as data shows 64 percent of them grapple with housing security.
“This is a systemic problem,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, and the lead author of the report Still Hungry and Homeless in College, which is based on data collected from forty-three thousand students and sixty-six schools. She argues that the problem with student food insecurity goes beyond simply rising college costs. She and other researchers explain that while college hunger is not a new problem, a rise in the number of enrolling low-income students combined with inadequate resources to accommodate them and many colleges’ unwillingness to admit to a hunger problem within their student body has exacerbated the problem.
According to a separate report titled Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, 55 percent of surveyed food insecure students did not buy a required textbook because of their lack of money for food. Fifty-three percent reported missing class. Twenty-five percent even reported dropping a class because of their lack of access to food. Hunger pangs have an undeniable impact on a student’s ability to succeed.
“I want people to know that the privilege to have parents who help you go to school is not to be underestimated.”
Standing shirtless in his apartment, twenty-one-year-old Greyson Thorne cooks a simple meal of stir-fried tofu and vegetables over an electric stove. He is eating today, but things weren’t always this way. Like 15 percent of food insecure students, Thorne struggled with homelessness while attending Central Connecticut State University. “It was a constant state of anxiety that plagued me just as much as anything else. Alongside thinking, ‘oh I have a test on Friday,’ I would be thinking where I would go to sleep that night.”
Thorne’s troubles began with the loss of his mother’s financial backing. With only a part-time job to support himself, renting his own place was impossible and so began a semester of homelessness. During this time, he labored to keep from revealing any sign of homelessness. “I constantly had a fear of looking like I was homeless.” After washing up in charitable friends’ bathrooms, or showering in the campus athletic facility, Thorne would comb his hair and brush his teeth obsessively to hide any indication of homelessness before continuing to manage the responsibilities of a full time student.
Securing enough food to eat offered its own set of challenges. For Thorne, thirty-minute walks to Stop & Shop to fill a set of reusable shopping bags during the fall months became a part of his weekly routine. From there it was off to a friend’s kitchen to prepare enough of his mostly potato-based meals for the rest of the week. Making the most of his access to a stove, Thorne would spend five hours every Sunday cooking carefully portioned meals before storing them for safekeeping in any fridge he could get access to, either a friend’s or one at his on-campus job. Still, his resourcefulness and planning would not always ensure a daily meal. On more than one occasion, Thorne would return from class to collect a much-needed meal only to find that it had been pilfered. “I felt so frustrated because that person who took my food didn’t know what kind of detrimental effect they had on my day. That was my food. I had no meal plan, no parents to call.”
Based on the available data, the effort to remedy this problem will be colossal and undoubtedly expensive. According to data from Feeding America, the average meal cost in Connecticut is $3.19. Going off this figure, the investment needed to ensure every food insecure person has enough to eat would be a little over $226 million or around seventy-one thousand meals distributed annually. For many students, what is being done now to combat the problem is simply not enough. Research has shown that even students who are meal plan enrollees, around 43 percent, still experience food insecurity. While hunger is a problem that can never truly be eliminated, college should be a place for students to focus on feeding their hunger to learn, not a place to worry about where their next meal will be.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘privilege’, but I want people to know that the privilege to have parents who help you go to school is not to be underestimated,” says Thorne, sitting at the kitchen table of his new apartment. Rodriguez shares his determination to succeed as she transitions from classes, to study sessions in the library, to tracking down meals at school events. Her goal of graduation is never far from her mind even when suffering the pangs of hunger.
Headline image photo credit to Noah Hulton