Growing number of colleges offer food pantries to help students

College officials cite several reasons the pantries are needed, including more low-income students and a higher cost of living. 'We want our students to be successful ...,' explains one official.

Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle/AP
Erin Anderholm (l.), a Lone Star College-Montgomery food pantry adviser and board member, listens as Dwyanya Earnhardt (r.), a student and volunteer, talks about the campus food pantry, Sept. 8, 2016, in Conroe, Texas.

Dwyanya Earnhardt refers to herself as an ex-con and recovering drug addict, but now the 40-year-old has a new title: college student.

The Houston Chronicle reports she studies Human Services at Lone Star College in Conroe, Texas, balancing school with waitressing on the weekends. Her husband works as a commercial electrician.

"We make literally $20 an hour between us," Earnhardt said.

During her first semester, Earnhardt confided to her English teacher that she and her husband were struggling financially. Her English teacher told her about Karen Buckman, a psychology professor, who helped start a food pantry on campus in September 2015. The food pantry located inside Lone Star's student services building is filled with beans, soups, vegetables, baby food and other items.

Earnhardt was reluctant to ask for help, but knew she needed it. She's used the food pantry several times since.

"I didn't like having to come back," Earnhardt said. "I did like being able to eat, though."

Lone Star's Montgomery County campus is among a growing number of US colleges opening food pantries for students. In the Houston area alone, San Jacinto College and the University of Houston-Downtown, where the average student is a working 27-year-old, have also added them.

UH-Downtown opened its food pantry in the campus's veteran services' office in spring 2015. It's hoping to increase its use through a pilot program being launched this semester in conjunction with the Houston Food Bank and researchers from Rice University.

About 100 to 150 students will be granted food scholarships to use in a new food bank being constructed inside the student services building.

"More students of varying backgrounds have access to higher education, but just because you got in doesn't mean you have the support coming from home to keep you in," said Patrick Jefferson, UH-Downtown's assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. "Many of our students are low-income, and many are first generation. Our clientele comes with many of the challenges that populations like that have."

Richard Selvera, director of veteran services at UH-Downtown and founder of the food pantry, initiated a survey on campus modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food insecurity survey. They found that 50 percent of the 400 students surveyed on campus last fall experienced some type of food insecurity within the year.

"Many of them come after work, take their class, and they go home, and they don't leave their challenges at the front door," Jefferson said. "We're recognizing that we just can't say, 'We only worry about our students' academic challenges.' We have to think about the student as a whole person."

The majority of donations to Lone Star's food pantry have come from faculty and students, including Earnhardt. After visiting the food pantry several times, Earnhardt started volunteering there and now serves as a board member. She tries to donate to it whenever she can.

"That's kind of the great part about it, because it's a give-and-take," Earnhardt said. "Unlike other resources I've had to use, I'm actually able to give back to this one and be involved."

The food pantry is open from noon until 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, but students can request it at another time if needed. Nearly 590 students and faculty have used the pantry since it opened last fall.

Buckman, the psychology professor, said some people are surprised to find out that faculty need to use the pantry, but she said that sometimes people are just going through "a bad month" financially.

"We want to make it easy, so people don't feel embarrassed to come," Buckman said. "If they need a bag of food every week, then we say come every week."

San Jacinto College has been offering food pantry services twice a month to students since 2013. The college distributes a bag of non-perishable items on designated days and has received more than 1,000 student requests since it began. They even distribute a bag filled with Thanksgiving foods around the holiday.

Students just need to be enrolled at the college and fill out a form where they list some personal information, such as their income. Amanda Rose, student engagement and activities coordinator for the college, said they allow students from all income levels to request food. UH-Downtown and Lone Star Montgomery also follow the same policy.

Rose said the food pantry services are filling a vital need for students.

"The cost of living has risen so much and the food cost has risen significantly," she said. "I've heard stories of students who have to decide between buying their books for class and feeding their family. That's really difficult. That's really challenging. We want our students to be successful so we're trying to provide those resources."

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