No more ‘poverty naps’

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

When col­lege stu­dents re­turn to their cam­puses in the fall, many will face a grow­ing prob­lem that threat­ens to un­der­mine their chances for suc­cess.

Hunger.

Re­cent sur­veys agree that more than one-third of all col­lege stu­dents suffer at times from bouts of food inse­cu­rity. The rate is far higher for stu­dents with an ex­tra risk fac­tor: be­long­ing to a racial mi­nor­ity, hav­ing a sin­gle par­ent or be­ing the first in their fam­ily to at­tend col­lege, for ex­am­ple.

For these stu­dents, hunger means “sit­ting in a class­room hop­ing no one hears your stom­ach growl,” said Christo­pher Nel­lum of The Ed­u­ca­tion Trust-west to

U.S. News. “It means spending time wor­ry­ing about where to get food for the next week rather than study­ing for next week’s exam.”

A New York Times re­port on lo­cal cam­puses told these sto­ries: “A se­nior at Lehman Col­lege in the Bronx dreams of start­ing her day with break­fast. An un­der­grad­u­ate at New York Univer­sity said he has been so deliri­ous from hunger he’s caught him­self walk­ing down the street not re­al­iz­ing where he’s go­ing. A health sciences stu­dent at Stony Brook Univer­sity on Long Is­land de­scribes ‘poverty naps,’ where she de­cides to go to sleep rather than deal with her hunger pangs.”

In one sense, the prob­lem re­flects good news: the grow­ing di­ver­sity of stu­dent bod­ies, from both racial and so­cioe­co­nomic per­spec­tives. A re­cent study by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice says only 29% of those now in col­lege are “tra­di­tional stu­dents,” who en­roll right out of high school and de­pend on their par­ents for sup­port. The rest, es­pe­cially in com­mu­nity col­leges, can be older, and fi­nan­cially frag­ile -of­ten with chil­dren of their own.

But fed­eral aid pro­grams have not kept up with this chang­ing pro­file and rising need. Forty years ago, Pell grants, the main source of pub­lic sup­port for needy stu­dents, cov­ered half the average cost at two-year col­leges and 39% at pub­lic four-year col­leges. To­day, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, those rates have dropped to 37% at com­mu­nity schools and 19% at big­ger uni­ver­si­ties.

The re­sult could be called the “hunger gap,” which Steve sees first­hand at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, where he has taught for al­most 30 years. The way the fed­eral gov­ern­ment cal­cu­lates a stu­dent’s an­nual need is woe­fully inad­e­quate, and even stu­dents with “full rides” can have trou­ble af­ford­ing full meals.

“Food inse­cu­rity is a col­lege com­ple­tion is­sue,” said Sara Goldrick-rab, a lead­ing scholar in cam­pus hunger at Tem­ple Univer­sity, to the At­lantic. “We’re un­der­min­ing our fed­eral in­vest­ment in fi­nan­cial aid by not pay­ing at­ten­tion to this. We have to stop pre­tend­ing like liv­ing ex­penses are not ed­u­ca­tional ex­penses.”

One an­swer is a rapid ex­pan­sion of cam­pus-based food banks. An or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Col­lege and Univer­sity Food Bank Alliance started with 15 schools in 2012 and now counts about 700 mem­bers.

The Store at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton is one of them. It’s housed on the ground floor of a large dorm, but the en­trance is tucked away in an ob­scure hall­way so stu­dents don’t feel stig­ma­tized when they use it. All stu­dents who reg­is­ter with The Store and get the pass­code for the en­trance can take what they need -- no limits, no su­per­vi­sion, all on the honor sys­tem.

Many cam­puses have tried other in­no­va­tions. Pro­grams called Share Meals and Swipe Out Hunger en­able stu­dents to do­nate their un­used din­ing hall cred­its to hungry class­mates. Sodexo USA, which man­ages din­ing halls on many cam­puses, now has a sys­tem of alert­ing stu­dents to “left­overs from catered events,” re­ports the Times. An ur­ban farm at Kings­bor­ough Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Brook­lyn pro­duces fresh pro­duce that’s dis­trib­uted free to stu­dents.

One crit­i­cal change would in­volve

SNAP, the fed­eral nu­tri­tion pro­gram once known as food stamps. Its rules re­gard­ing stu­dent el­i­gi­bil­ity re­main highly re­stric­tive and con­fus­ing, and the GAO re­ports that about 2 mil­lion stu­dents who could have qual­i­fied for aid in 2017 did not re­ceive it.

Sim­pli­fy­ing the rules and ex­tend­ing el­i­gi­bil­ity to more stu­dents makes to­tal sense. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ac­tu­ally try­ing to re­duce the pro­gram and elim­i­nate re­cip­i­ents, even as the need con­tin­ues to grow.

That’s both pro­foundly im­moral and ut­terly counter-pro­duc­tive. Pro­grams to com­bat hunger eas­ily pay for them­selves: Stu­dents who don’t have to worry about food do bet­ter in school, grad­u­ate at higher rates and are more likely to be­come pro­duc­tive, tax-pay­ing cit­i­zens.

The pub­lic pol­icy goal should be com­pletely clear and com­pelling: No more growl­ing stom­achs in class­rooms. No more “poverty naps” in­stead of lunch.

•••

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be con­tacted by email at steve­[email protected]

COKIE ROBERTS

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