Doctor’s Notes: Food Banks at California Colleges Help Keep Students from Going Hungry

Student Specialist Christopher Dela Cruz (left) and Tony McKinley II, Manager of Warrior Food (right) help students like Isaiah Robinson (center) avoid hunger while attending El Camino College in Torrance. Photo credit: ChrisAnna Mink.

Last spring, my son, Anton, told me he went to the food pantry at California State University Monterey Bay, where he’s a senior. He said that one of his friends was joking about going to the pantry just to see what was there. What Anton didn’t realize was that his friend was “joking” to cover up that he didn’t have money to buy food.

The rising cost of higher education, including tuition, fees and housing, makes food a luxury for some college students. Non-traditional students (such as veterans and those with children), first-generation enrollees, low-income students, and those who are undocumented or minorities sometimes struggle to pay for school and their basic needs. Former foster children and people who experienced childhood hunger are also at risk for food insecurity.

The United States Department of Agriculture describes food insecurity as not having enough food to lead an active, healthy life. The agency defines two categories—first is low food security, which means having less quality and variety in one’s diet, but still getting enough calories. The second is very low food security, defined as eating less or not at all, because of limited resources.

“The food pantry at CSUMB was started by Associated Students,” said Joanna Snawder-Manzo, manager for student programs under the Dean of Students. Associated Students is the student government, which gave funds to start the pantry to help their hungry peers.

ChrisAnna Mink is a pediatrician who practices in South Los Angeles.

Snawder-Manzo said that, like Anton’s friend, students are often embarrassed that they need food—but they’re not alone. Among Cal State students, 41 percent reported food insecurity in a 2016-17 survey across all 23 campuses. The Cal State system has more than 480,000 students, meaning almost a quarter-million students don’t have enough food. Similarly, UC regents reported that 19 percent of UC students had missed meals. For California community college students, this number soars to 50 percent.

The California legislature is working to address hunger among college students. Last year, lawmakers approved the Hunger-Free Campus Bill, AB 453, the first such legislation in the country. The law, which was incorporated into the 2017-18 budget, provides funding to help public institutions address student hunger.

To achieve “hunger-free” status, colleges now need to provide students with access to a food pantry and assistance signing up for CalFresh, California’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Program, previously known as food stamps. Except for community colleges, the bill also requires higher-education institutions to provide a meal-plan sharing program, which allows students to donate meal-plan credits for campus dining services. This is similar to “Swipe Out Hunger,” a grassroots program that started at UCLA and is now nationwide.

Most colleges and universities in the state are already taking action. At CSUMB, the pantry provides food to about 300 students each semester. The school offers a unique program called Otter Eats, which allows students to opt-in to receive texts to get leftover food at campus events. (The school’s mascot is the otter.) Feed Each Otter is CSUMB’s meal-plan sharing program.

Food insecurity is not unique to California. In a 2017 nationwide survey, 36 percent of 43,000 students from two- and four-year colleges reported that they didn’t have enough to eat.

College students may be particularly vulnerable to food insecurity for several reasons, including that some lack the skills to managing their finances and food purchases. Some students have limited resources, don’t receive enough financial aid to cover living expenses or still live with their families in food-insecure households.

Students who don’t have proper nutrition have difficulty attending classes, lower grades and higher drop-out rates. Undergrads without enough food report more physical illnesses, depression and other mental health problems compared to their food-secure peers.

Research, primarily with K-12 students, shows that hunger is often partnered with lacking other basic needs, such as inadequate housing or homelessness, insufficient health care and less family support.

“The food pantry is really helpful,” said Isaiah Robinson, a second-year student at El Camino Community College, ECC, in the South Bay of Los Angeles. Robinson grew up in South L.A. with a single mom who struggled financially. At 16, he was on his own and decided an education was the only way to have a better life.

Robinson receives financial aid, which covers tuition and books. But, it’s only enough for rent and expenses, so he skipped buying food. Then he learned about ECC’s Warrior Food Pantry, which he describes as “feeling like home.”

“I want the students to feel welcome,” said Tony McKinley, manager of the food pantry. “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to not have food.” McKinley said he was a struggling student before he graduated from ECC.

Christopher Dela Cruz, the ECC student services specialist, oversees student support programs, including the pantry. Dela Cruz said that in a recent survey, 34 percent of ECC’s 24,000 students identified as having very low food security. He hopes to serve 600 students this academic year.

Robinson’s story is like many of my teen patients in South L.A., some of whom attend ECC. I am happy to learn about resources that to help them achieve good health, as well as succeed academically.

I am also happy to know that Anton’s friend has a better financial situation this semester. Now, he and Anton donate to the food pantry.

Pediatrician ChrisAnna Mink writes the bimonthly Doctor’s Notes column on children’s health. 

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