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How Colleges Are Helping Students Meet Basic Needs

Many students have faced exacerbated hardships since the pandemic began. Here's how colleges are helping with food and housing and where you can find resources.

When the pandemic first struck college campuses, student jobs dried up, family finances tightened, and many students struggled with food and housing insecurity, according to a 2020 survey by Chegg that found more than half of all students used an off-campus food bank and 30% visited at least once a month. But even prior to the pandemic, housing and food insecurity was a larger problem than previously understood, according to an analysis by the US Government Accountability Office. That’s because until recently, the general assumption was that students at four-year universities were supported by their parents. The reality is that the average college student is 26 years old, and more students attending college are low income, according to the GAO report. Plus, college costs continue to rise, and financial aid hasn’t kept up, which affects students of all ages. As a result, many colleges have stepped up to help fill the gap. Here’s how and where you can find this help on your campus if you need it.

What does food and housing insecurity look like?

Often, students don’t even realize they fit the profile of food or housing insecure, and campuses don’t always define it well, says Stacy Raphael, Case Management Director of Rise, a student-led organization that advocates for college access. Food insecurity can look like skipping meals to make money last, only eating pasta because fresh vegetables cost too much, or feeling anxious about affording food. Housing insecurity includes struggling to pay rent, inconsistent housing (aka couch surfing), or low-quality/unsafe housing, according to a 2019 report on basic needs by The Hope Center for Community, College, and Justice.

Students struggling with basic needs are typically more stressed, depressed, and less likely to succeed academically, according to The Hope Center. But even if students know they need help, the stigma for seeking it remains a barrier. College experts want students to think of basic needs help like they do academic advising or career counseling—as a resource strategy to get through college. Asking for help “is a sign of self-awareness and self-advocacy, and students should celebrate that they’re willing to seek out support for themselves,” Raphael says.

How to find help on your campus

Basic needs services vary, ranging from food pantries and meal swipe donation programs to emergency grants for housing or textbooks. As a general starting point, your college website may be helpful, but it might not capture every service or update offered by your college. Check with your school’s office of sustainability, student affairs, financial aid office, or basic needs office to find out who to talk to about resources. Ideally, it’s a one-stop office. Also find out which social media channels to follow for alerts and updates.

Related: 5 Great Campus Resources Students Should Know About

Typical campus food programs

Many colleges offer similar food support programs for students in need. Here are the types of programs you should be looking for and researching to find out which one is best for you.

Food pantries and grocery vouchers

Many colleges have food pantries, food vouchers, short-term grocery support, or other food programs. As campuses shuttered during the pandemic, food pantries were forced to rethink services, and many provided appointments or online ordering. But for fall 2021, they may look more like pre-pandemic days. Usually, students access these programs by filling out a short form or meeting with a program coordinator. Some colleges provide low-barrier pantries that don’t require “proof of need.”

For example, at University of California, Riverside, the Basic Needs Working Group helps eligible students apply for grocery support cards, the campus food pantry, and SNAP benefits. The University of Georgia also offers a low-barrier food pantry, snack fridges with free snacks in two locations, and a year-long food scholarship through an application process. For individualized help, the University recommends students check in with the financial aid office to determine whether their needs are long or short term.

Food alerts, food recovery programs, and farmers markets

Some campuses also alert students about leftover food from events with mobile apps (possibly suspended during the pandemic, so double-check!). For instance, California State University, Fullerton pushes “Titan Bites” notifications to students who sign up. The University of California, San Diego also has an app for leftover food and runs a food recovery program through which campus partners and student leaders recover food that otherwise would go to waste and make it available to students. Be sure to check if your campus runs a food recovery program. Some campuses also partner with farmers markets: Baylor University holds a free farmers market on campus once per semester for all students, and the University of California, Irvine partners with an area farm stand that allows UCI students to use food vouchers for fresh produce.

Meal swipe donations

Some colleges that use “meal swipes” in their dining halls have created donation systems so students with unused meal swipes can pass them on to their peers. Students usually donate during “swipe drives” to a meal bank. Those swipes are loaded onto meal cards for students who need extra help, which allows recipients to use swipes anonymously in the dining halls and sometimes the food pantry. Some colleges partner with Swipe Out Hunger, a national student-driven initiative that works with campus student groups to create meal donation systems at their colleges. The latest university to join the Swipe Out Hunger initiative, Mercyhurst University instituted a meal swipe program in January 2021. Other schools create independent swipe programs; in 2020, Central Michigan University launched both a meal swipe program and a program for students to purchase $1 meals from a campus food court. More colleges are coming aboard with food donation programs as they recognize the need.

Related: The Best College Meals for Your Taste Buds and Budget

Emergency grants and housing

Other than just meal assistance, some campuses also offer small emergency grants to cover things like medications, laptop replacements, rent, or food. For example, Portland State University offers grants of up to $2,000 once during a student’s college career. The grant isn’t a long-term fix, but it can get students through a sudden financial challenge.

Thirty-six colleges partner with the FAST Fund, an emergency grant program administered through Believe in Students. The FAST Fund gives funds (up to $10,000) to designated faculty who use their judgment to distribute the emergency grants to students in need. CSU Fullerton provides emergency SAFE grants and short-term housing to eligible students, and DePaul University developed the DAX Program to match homeless or housing-insecure students with host families for up to 12 weeks. Other colleges partner with area housing resources to help students come up with a plan.   

Student navigator networks

Student navigator networks, a new initiative that rose out of the pandemic, provide one-on-one help to connect students to campus, community, and state or federal resources. Rise rolled out its national Student Navigator Network in summer 2020. Student case managers work with individual students around the country to locate resources, ranging from food to housing to mental health support. Rise recently partnered with the University of Wisconsin–Madison to train student navigators to help Wisconsin students, and they also have a Los Angeles navigator network to work with LA area students. “As we move beyond the pandemic, the economic, social, and emotional toll of the virus will be lasting,” Raphael says. “For this reason, the Student Navigator Network is expanding to become available long after the crisis has abated.” You can sign up on the Rise form to work with a navigator.

Similarly, Swipe Out Hunger has a partnership with City of New York (CUNY) colleges that connects CUNY students to food and other local resources through peer navigator mentors who work across all the campuses. And The Hope Center, which conducts research on student need, provides a resource guide for both students and faculty with tips on where to look for help.

Related: The Best Student Discounts: Food, Clothes, and More

Long-term resources for success

For students to be successful, they need stable, long-term resources. Meal swipe donations serve as one tool, but if you’re consistently struggling to make ends meet, you may need more help than that. Your school may be able to connect you to a local food bank, help you sign up for your state’s expanded SNAP benefits if you’re eligible, or have ideas for housing options. Students with undocumented status can ask about resources too. Small colleges might not offer as many resources as larger universities, but it’s still worth checking with someone on your campus. Don’t wait until you’re about to fail a final to ask for help.

For more resources to get you through the (hopefully) end of the pandemic, check out our COVID-19 student resources page.

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