Poverty on campus: Second in a three-part series
“When I was a student, I certainly didn’t want to tell people I didn’t have access to food,” said Kei Graves, a student success coach and former student at Lorain County Community College. Kei described himself as living off of candy bars or, if he was lucky, ramen noodles.
“If I had an extra dollar lying around or if I would find change and I was able to get some lunch money, I might buy a drink or some candy because it’s cheap,” Graves said. “I was lucky to have a candy bar when I was on campus so I could go to my classes and focus. And so I just kind of made due with what I had access to at the time.”
Being hungry, for many college students, is a constant reality. Wondering whether or not they will eat that day and where that meal might come from is a prevailing concern millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Ohioans. According to their website (usda.gov), in 2006 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) amended the language used to describe the ability of those who have difficulty finding their next meal – food insecure.
Food insecurity is the economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the USDA.
“Basically the simplest way to put it, in my opinion, is just not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or when you’re going to be able to eat a healthy meal next,” said Graves, who now as adjunct faculty, manages the Commodore Cupboard, LCCC’s campus food pantry. “People who don’t have access to regular food sources; they may not know when they’re going to be able to have dinner next. In the case of parents, they may be able to feed their children but they may not be able to feed themselves.”
LCCC is one of 12 Ohio colleges and universities to have a food pantry on campus, according to the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies’ (OACAA) 2016 ‘State of Poverty’ report. Others on the list include Cleveland State University, Kent State University, Owens Community College, and the University of Akron. All total, eight from the list are universities; the other four are community colleges. About three-quarters of food insecure students receive financial aid in some form, the OACAA found.
The Commodore Cupboard was set up in response to a 2013 survey of campus conducted by Connect 2 Complete peer advocates, according to Graves, who was a peer advocate at the time.
“The response was overwhelming, which is why we actually have the pantry now,” he said, adding that a grant from the LCCC Foundation allowed the Cupboard to purchase cabinets and food to get started.
One-in-four college students are “highly nontraditional”, according to OACAA. This means that they may struggle to pay for food due to the fact that they meet one of the following characteristics: financially independent, employed full time, a single parent, provide for dependents, attend college part-time, or do not have a standard high school diploma.
The issue of food insecurity is far more likely to occur on the campuses of community colleges, according to the 2017 ‘Food and Housing Insecurities in the Community College’ report from the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), a national research laboratory at San Diego State University. About 56 percent of community college students who participated in the survey have household incomes under $20,000 or less, according to CCEAL. High rates of poverty among community colleges are due, in part, to open admissions policies, which allow access to poor or underprivileged students, the report also found.
“I think, in part, that’s probably just the population that we serve,” said Graves. “We serve a lot of at-risk students, students who are balancing being working adults with families, students who may have to leave a full-time job to work a part-time job, or maybe not work at all to come to school. It happens at the four-year schools, but it definitely happens with community colleges more,” he said.
Food insecurity has a dramatic impact on a student’s ability to be successful academically.
A 2014 study of Maryland community college students found that students who experienced food insecurity were significantly less likely than their peers to be high achieving, which the study defined as having a GPA of 3.5 or higher, according to CCEAL.
“It absolutely can affect academics in a variety of ways,” Graves said. “When students are hungry, not only does it make it difficult for them to learn, if you’re hungry you don’t have any fuel for your brain, so it makes it harder to retain information. Also, students may be distracted, wondering where their next meal is coming from or how they’re going to feed their families if they’re a student who has children.”
Only an LCCC ID is needed to apply for assistance through the Commodore Cupboard. Non-perishables and personal care items are accepted as donations. For more information, contact Kei Graves via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.