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A food pantry staff member at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass., loads a student's car with groceries.

QCC Institutional Communications

The coronavirus pandemic is reinvigorating hunger-free campus legislation in states including Maryland, Massachusetts and New York, where lawmakers recently proposed bills that would provide colleges with financial and administrative assistance for helping food-insecure students.

State lawmakers are becoming more aware of the needs of the diversifying student population, said Sunny Deye, director of the postsecondary education program at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Today's students were already more likely to be working adults, first generation and low income, and to require additional support with basic needs such as food, housing and childcare, Deye said. Then came the pandemic, which caused students and their families to lose employment and income. The result is a broad swath of students who are at risk of dropping out, she said.

“There’s a recognition that the costs beyond tuition are becoming overwhelming,” Deye said. “Legislators are acknowledging the unprecedented challenges that students are facing right now, that the nontuition costs can be just as challenging. Things like hunger and housing really underscore whether or not you can persist with your education.”

California and New Jersey have both passed hunger-free campus laws within the last four years, and Deye said that the National Conference of State Legislatures is currently tracking seven pending bills related to campus hunger in five different states. Years of discussions about the prevalence of food insecurity on Massachusetts campuses culminated in 16 lawmakers in its Senate and House co-sponsoring corresponding hunger-free campus bills last week.

Members of the commonwealth's Hunger Free Campus Coalition, a collection of more than 30 student organizations, antihunger and antipoverty advocates, regional food banks and colleges, filed the legislation. If passed, the bills would dedicate $1 million to create an office in the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. The office would help public institutions and select private nonprofits that serve a significant number of low-income students direct students to food assistance and compile department reports on campus hunger.

The office would also manage a new grant program and award funding to qualifying colleges that prove they are developing initiatives such as a meal credit-sharing program, a campus food pantry or assigning staff members to assist students experiencing food insecurity.

In Massachusetts, 37 percent of public university students said they had recently experienced food insecurity, according to a June 2020 report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice and the commonwealth's higher education department, which surveyed students before the pandemic. Multiple recent national surveys have reported that nearly one-third of all students have been food insecure during the pandemic and that more than half of students accessed a food pantry at least once during the public health crisis.

Laura Sylvester, legislative and community partnership coordinator for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which is a regional nonprofit that distributes food to low-income residents and is a member of the hunger-free campus coalition, said that the proposed legislation offers colleges a menu of options to make it easy to qualify for government assistance. Some institutions might already be doing two or three of the initiatives listed in the bill. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and four other area colleges already partner with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to provide students with off-campus access to food distribution, Sylvester said.

“They can choose what’s low-hanging fruit for them,” she said. “We want to be really mindful of school size and school resources and make it as easy as possible for them to adopt the provisions in the bill.”

Massachusetts lawmakers' proposal to create a new state agency to distribute the funding is a unique piece of the legislation, said Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit organization that helped draft the original hunger-free campus bill in California, which was passed in 2017. Under California's law, funds are allocated directly to public college and university leadership to use as needed, Sumekh said.

Sumekh believes assigning a government entity to distribute the funds has the potential to add a layer of bureaucracy for colleges to navigate when seeking out funding. However, it could also increase transparency around how the funds are used, she said. Providing the direct funding to public colleges and universities in California during the first year of the state’s own hunger-free program was not an entirely smooth or equitable process, she said.

“We saw different systems shepherd those dollars differently,” Sumekh said.

Robb Friedlander, director of advocacy for Swipe Out Hunger, said that the fiscal commitment required from state legislatures considering new hunger-free campus legislation will be a challenge. Most states are facing budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic and economic recession. But students aren’t seeing the level of federal financial relief needed, and Friedlander believes it’s time for states to step up.

“If there’s ever a time to stand up for our most vulnerable communities and we’re not seeing it from our federal government, then it’s the state governments that need to provide for our struggling students,” he said.

However, some have argued that the data on student food insecurity are unclear and do not justify the government spending that hunger-free campus advocates are seeking.

Surveys that ask students about whether they experienced food insecurity are based on “sentiments and opinions, not actual food consumption” and return rates of food insecurity that are far above national rates provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, James Bovard, a conservative author and columnist for USA Today, wrote in an article last year for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a conservative public policy institute in North Carolina. According to a report published by the Department of Agriculture, 5.9 percent of American households were food insecure within 30 days of responding to a 2018 survey, which is far below the Hope Center’s estimates for recent food insecurity among students, Bovard argued.

“The wild variance of estimates on college hunger is another reason to distrust alarmist data,” he wrote.

A group of public health and law professors also called for more reliable and nationally representative research on campus hunger in a July 2020 article published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. It will be challenging for lawmakers to approve funding aimed at reducing campus hunger given the “limited evidence on which proposed legislation can be based,” the authors wrote. But if nutrition experts, student affairs personnel, policy experts and government agencies do not coordinate to assess and address the level of need on campuses, "college food insecurity will likely only worsen," they wrote.

In recent surveys, students on California campuses said they’ve benefited from new need-based initiatives on their campuses funded by the hunger-free legislation, Sumekh said. They include meal swipe-sharing programs and additional assistance applying for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The U.S. Department of Education also recently expanded student eligibility for SNAP benefits due to the pandemic, allowing students who are eligible for federal work-study and those who have an expected family contribution of $0 during the 2020-21 academic year to qualify, the department announced Feb. 23.

Members of the Massachusetts coalition praised a recent email from Carlos Santiago, the commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts, who explained the new SNAP guidelines. Santiago wrote to all college students in the state whose expected family contribution was $0 as of Feb. 3, encouraging them to apply for SNAP under the temporary qualifications. In the email, Santiago shared his personal story of struggling to pay for food during graduate school and addressed the stigma that students face seeking out nutrition assistance.

“There is no ‘shame’ in using SNAP,” he wrote. “It’s how I fed my family when I was a graduate student in college years ago. Without it, I would have had to drop out of school. I would never have earned my degree.”

Students surveyed by Swipe Out Hunger in California indicated they felt less stigma about reaching out for support after the hunger-free campus law was passed, Sumekh said. The legislation incentivized campuses to create more robust organizations and programs to provide students with basic needs, she said.

Luis Pedraja, president of Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass., and a member of the state’s Hunger Free Campus Coalition, said that in a given week during the pandemic, the college’s drive-through food pantry service has provided groceries to about 35 to 45 students and their families. But Pedraja is especially worried about the students who are not coming because they fear being judged for seeking out help or feel they aren’t in enough need to receive food assistance.

“There’s a sense of, ‘We’re not that bad off, there’s people who are much worse and need it more,’ and sometimes that keeps us from asking for help and accessing those resources,” Pedraja said. “There’s a thought of, ‘We can scrape by.’ You shouldn’t have to scrape by.”

The proposed legislation in Massachusetts is “an important first step” to address the high need of students in the state, and particularly at Quinsigamond, Pedraja said. Sixty percent of the college's enrolled students who applied for federal financial aid in 2020 are Pell Grant recipients, and 66 percent care for dependents, such as children or elderly parents, he said.

“The fact that this is happening in America to many families is unbelievable,” Pedraja said of food insecurity. “The legislators have heard the story. They know the need. They will do something about it.”

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