Exploring Students’ Basic Needs: Food Insecurity

Mari NormyleAssistant Vice President for Retention SolutionsOctober 3, 2019

Written by Mari Normyle and co-written by Sarah Kleeberger

Is your campus aware of and responding to student food insecurity?

At our national conference in July, we were fortunate to have as one of our three outstanding keynote speakers, Dr. Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College in Dallas. The transformation of Paul Quinn under President Sorrell’s leadership has been nothing less than extraordinary and it started with him asking the question: how do we deal with the poverty our students face every day? Dr. Sorrell shared that unless his institution faced their students’ poverty-related realities directly, there was little hope that their students would thrive academically.

One way they addressed food insecurities was to end their football program and convert their football field to a farm that has produced more than 30,000 pounds of organic vegetables since its inception in March 2010.

While not many other colleges and universities have the flexibility to begin farm programs on their campuses, increasing numbers of our partner institutions are working to respond to students’ basic needs, particularly around food insecurity. The irony of our success in increasing access to higher education for low-income students is the risk that those students will not have adequate resources to meet their basic needs.

How are institutions responding?

First, they are asking the questions necessary to learn more about students’ circumstances.

Through the admissions, orientation and advising processes, students are being asked about food and housing security, access to reliable transportation and, for those with dependents, reliable child care.

Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) added campus-based questions to their College Student Inventory. One of those was “I cut the size of my meals or skip meals because there isn’t enough money for food.” They learned that 15 percent of their students answered “sometimes” or “often”—more than they expected, and enlightening their understanding of this issue for many of their students.

The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice reported that, based on 86,000 student responses, 48 percent of community college students and 21 percent of four-year institution students are food insecure.

Do you know what percentage of your students experience regular food insecurity?

Second, they are responding with resources.

Colleagues at VWCC shared their insights with the Board of Directors of the VWCC Educational Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit which raises money for student scholarships and other needs. A member of the board, also an executive with Kroger, was so moved that he personally championed a significant expansion and rebranding of the campus food pantry and enlisted additional support from Kraft Heinz. The Virginia Western Student Co-Op opened in late August with hopes that this model can be replicated at other schools in the Virginia Community College

With the high cost of living in the Bay Area, San Jose State University recognized that SJSU students experience food insecurity at rates well above the national average.

In an effort to address the need and expand its mobile operation, the university established a Student Hunger Fund and launched a crowdfunding project, powered by the RNL Digital Giving powered by ScaleFunder platform, to help establish a permanent Spartan Food Pantry. SJSU Alumni were inspired by the chance to make a real impact with their philanthropy, and more than $37,000 was raised; far exceeding the $20,000 goal.

San Jose State University Food Bank
The San Jose State University Food Pantry raised more then $37,000

The crowdfunding gifts, along with on-campus groups and financial support from key community partners and other donors, made the pantry a reality. The new center provides students with access to non-perishable foods, refrigerated goods, fresh produce, and toiletries. Since opening in March, the pantry has recorded over 5,200 visits, 600 last month alone.

How is your campus creating resources to meet the food needs of your students?

Third, they are advocating.

Fresno State’s March Match Up! campaign generated more than $160,000 in support of The Student Cupboard, which serves 3,300 students each month. The university was able to leverage $82,000 in matching funds from community partners. Matches are effective in motivating participation, with the 1:1 dollar match effectively doubling donor impact on student success.

Some advocacy has also led to changes at the state level. New York State has established food pantries in all public colleges, with a number of private institutions following suit.

How is advocacy for food resources occurring at your institution?

This is an issue that brings admissions, student success and advancement to the table around a common student cause. In fact, we’ve worked with partner campuses where strategic enrollment plans include a focus on student basic needs such as food, housing and transportation. We’ve seen a growing number of fundraising partners launch food pantry and student emergency fund projects. These campaigns resonate with donors who are looking for transparency and how their gifts meet specific student needs.

How are you identifying the basic life needs of your students and responding in meaningful ways? We would love to learn more about the strategies working on your campus.

If your campus is ready to gather data on student circumstances and respond with resources, RNL can help. Given the many surveys we ask students to complete, we recommend tagging onto an existing data collection effort. If your campus uses, or would like to use, any of our student satisfaction or student motivation surveys, we can assist you in adding custom items to gather data on life needs, or we can help you develop an entirely new data collection process. We can also support your crowdfunding efforts for these and other campus needs with our digital fundraising expertise and digital giving platform.

Finally, join us July 8-10, in Chicago for the RNLNC 2020 to learn from exciting keynote and concurrent speakers and network with peers. We’re currently accepting presentation proposals for sessions and would love to feature your program.

About the Author

Dr. Mari K. Normyle, assistant vice president for retention solutions, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America supporting student success and retention efforts through student motivation assessment and early alert programs. With more...

Read more about Mari's experience and expertise

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