Northwestern University entrance. (Courtesy of Wikipedia.org)
Northwestern State University got its campus food pantry when a group of social work students asked their university president for space to open it. Wanting to encourage student involvement in the community, the president at the time, Jim Henderson, found a small nook on campus for the students to use.
The resulting demand shocked Henderson, now president of the University of Louisiana System. Northwestern’s food pantry quickly moved into a space four times as large as the original pantry to accommodate demand.
“That was an eye opening experience,” Henderson said.
A 2020 study indicates that approximately 29% of students at four-year colleges and 38% at two-year schools experience food insecurity. The numbers are substantially higher for students of color.
The specific needs of students vary from campus to campus. In Louisiana, hurricanes are yet another factor that threatens food security at colleges and universities.
Carolyn Golz, dean of students at the University of New Orleans, said its campus food pantry typically has 85 patrons in a given semester. After Hurricane Ida in August 2021, the pantry saw a spike of patients who lost their entire stock of groceries. The university was able to take advantage of emergency funds to offer grocery store gift cards to supplement what the food pantry could offer.
Hurricane Ida also posed a problem at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, not far from where the storm made landfall. Nicholls offered free housing and meal plans to 180 students who lost their homes in the storm, thanks to its own hurricane relief fund.
But even outside of hurricane season, college students in Louisiana, where one in five residents live in poverty, are going hungry.
Most of Louisiana’s colleges and universities have a food pantry of some kind, although some do not offer fresh foods. Food pantries also cannot address the entirety of patrons’ nutrition needs.
A new law seeks to remedy that.
Act 719, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, creates a “hunger-free campus” designation program. The bill requires the state’s Board of Regents to compose the criteria schools have to meet to receive the designation and create a grant program for campuses that receive the designation.
Henderson said all nine schools in the University of Louisiana System will pursue the designation once the criteria is set. Efforts are already underway to increase the schools’ capacity to address students’ needs, he added.
In addition to food pantries, many schools in the UL System partner with Swipe Out Hunger to provide a meal-swipe sharing system. Meal swipes are what students use to access pre-paid meals at campus dining halls. A residential students may have 14-21 meal swipes to use in a given week.
Meal-swipe sharing programs enable students who have extra many meal-swipes to donate them to a pool, where they can either be reallocated to hungry students or be donated as an equivalent dollar amount to other programs to address student hunger, like the campus food pantry.
At LSU, the state’s largest university, a meal-swipe sharing program was abandoned shortly after a pilot took place in spring 2021. Lizzie Shaw, the school’s student body president, said she is working with the administration to bring the program back. To incentivize campus leadership, Shaw said is looking for ways to bring down the administrative resources needed to run the program.
Danny Mintz, director of safety net policy at the Louisiana Budget Project, said grants from the Hunger-Free Campus legislation could be used to address the administrative burden for swipe-sharing programs. The money could also be used to beef up food pantry inventory and expand access to existing programs, Mintz said.
Community college students have their own unique needs as well. Mintz said many of these students have families but are frequently excluded from federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they are enrolled in school full-time.
Dashika Davis, who runs Single Stop, a program at Delgado Community College that offers nutrition assistance in addition to other services, said she serves about 600 students in any given year.
Once Delgado receives the Hunger-Free Campus designation, Davis said she hopes to apply for grant funding to assist students with families.
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