UNC sophomore Holden Cox remembers how he first became aware of hunger on his Chapel Hill campus.
When he first volunteered for the school’s food pantry, he saw a video in which another student discussed walking through dining halls serving food he could not afford – and trying to find food that had been thrown out in Dumpsters along Franklin Street.
“You think of UNC, you think of the glitz and glamour,” Cox said. “You think that everybody is well off and affluent, but in reality they’re not. So I became part of Carolina Cupboard. ... A lot of students are like that. Carolina Cupboard is an alleyway or some type of safe haven for those students.”
Cox helps recruit volunteers for Carolina Cupboard, the university’s food pantry for students. Shelves in the pantry are stocked with canned goods, pastas and non-perishables. Refrigerators hold fresh vegetables and fruits.
Cox, and students at UNC, N.C. Central University and Durham Technical Community College are confronting a new reality: food insecurity on campus. All three campuses in the last five years have established food pantries where students can “shop” for free groceries.
Monica Grady and Leah Leak, both students at NCCU, volunteer at the student-run Campus Pantry in the Dent Human Sciences building on campus, where students can get canned and dried food items, as well as shampoo and personal care products.
Hunger on campus is a complex and nuanced problem. “The difficult part in this challenge ... is there’s not a particular rationale or formula” for why students are food insecure, said Desirée Rieckenberg, senior associate dean of students at UNC. “There’s not any one cause why a broad population of students might be experiencing food insecurity. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, both financial and cultural.”
At least two national studies document the presence of hunger on college campuses. In 2016, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did a survey of 70 community colleges in 24 states, involving more than 33,000 students. It found that 67 percent of community college students, or two out of three, were food insecure.
In October 2016, The National Student Campaign against Hunger & Homelessness released a study that included 3,765 students in 12 states attending eight community colleges and 26 four-year colleges and universities. “Consistent with prior studies, 48 percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry,” the report stated.
Limits of financial aid checks
Some students who receive financial aid send a portion of their refunds (money left after the school deducts for tuition and fees) home to their parents to help with expenses.
Cox, Grady and Leak say they send part of their refunds home. They are able to meet their expenses and get the food they need, but other students who send checks home are not as fortunate. Grady recently sent most of her refund home to help her mom pay bills. Grady works jobs when she is home in Wilmington, and, through old-fashioned thrift, has money for food. “I’m very tight budgeted,” she said.
“Some students send their financial aid refunds back home to their parents, and they don’t have any money,” Grady said. “So they have to go to the [NCCU cafeteria] or somewhere off campus.” Because both options can get expensive, “they come here to get food,” she said.
Leak has a meal plan that helps her keep costs down, “but with that, you get two swipes a day, not all three swipes,” she said. Some students make do with two meals a day to keep expenses down. “Some students do not have breakfast ... and that’s the most important meal of the day to get you filled up and started, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Leak said.
Financial aid does not always leave enough money for meal plans, Cox said. “A lot of times, you have to save that money. It’s not money you can just freely spend,” Cox said.
“I think a lot of people just don’t know about it,” said Neils Barringer, a student who is director of NCCU’s food pantry. “You just assume, looking at our classmates and everything that they’re fine. I think it’s hard for people our age especially to admit, I can’t afford my food, or, I’m hungry,” she said.
Food “is not always necessarily the priority, even though it really is,” Barringer said.
Responding to a need
Durham Tech’s Campus Harvest Food Pantry has been operating five years. It began as a student service project for Martin Luther King Day, said Jessica Dormady, the school’s volunteer services coordinator. Students made bags of food and “the bags were gone” almost immediately, Dormady said. The food pantry was born, and now is run primarily by student volunteers, she said.
The community college then helped NCCU establish its pantry, said Jason O’Briant, director of NCCU’s dietetics program. Administrators saw the need for a pantry, O’Briant said. “They were reporting stories that students would utilize their meal plan to feed their families” if they had children, he said.
UNC’s program began in October 2014. In 2015-2016, Carolina Cupboard had 214 visitors, and it has distributed about 2,500 items on average per year, Cox said. Campus Harvest has seen an increase in visits from 1,100 to 5,400 during its five-year history, Dormady said. The number of student volunteers has also tripled, Dormady said.
At all three programs, students can stop by for snacks, or to get a bag of groceries that will keep them supplied for a week or two. Carolina Cupboard is located in Avery Residence Hall, and Durham Tech’s pantry is located in the Edward L. Phillips Building.
The pantries try to offer nutritious food that also is practical for students.
“A bag of Cheetos does not provide much nutrition, but it’s cheap, lots of calories [but] it leads to diseases like hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity,” Barringer said. “That’s why we do try to offer ... canned vegetables and canned fruits whenever we can.”
“The foods that you eat definitely affect academic performance. ... That’s why we’re hoping to grow the pantry so we can offer more nutritious food,” Barringer said. Durham Tech partners with Briggs Avenue Community Garden for fresh vegetables, and NCCU students can get fresh vegetables from the Campus and Community Garden on Concord Street. Carolina Cupboard partners with Edible Campus, UNC’s campus garden.
The three campuses also sit in areas that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers food deserts, a problem that further bars access to nutritious foods, students say.
“The closest grocery store or convenience store is more than a mile away,” Barringer of NCCU said. We have a Food Lion [on Fayetteville Street, south of NCCU]. The [city] bus takes students there, but still that’s a challenge, carrying groceries back on a bus,” she said.
For Durham Tech students, too, the Fayetteville Street Food Lion is the nearest grocery, Dormady said. The pantry recently purchased canvas tote bags for students who do not have cars and must carry food from the store on buses, she said.
The food desert factor “sort of compounds this issue,” O’Briant said. “Not only do they have low access to food, they have low access to nutritious food,” he said. Students have the option of taking a bus or Uber to the grocery store, but often they might say, “why not go across the street to Burger King?” O’Briant said.
At UNC, the opening of Target on Franklin Street has helped, Cox said. But distance to other grocery stores is still a challenge. “You really need to have a car to get groceries,” Cox said. “You think about Franklin Street, a plethora of restaurants there, but ... in those restaurants there are not always nutritional options,” Cox said. “That’s what we try to provide in the pantry.”
Food pantries provide a valuable service, but they are not the solution, O’Briant said. “Is it helping to decrease food insecurity across the nation? It doesn’t seem that food pantries do that,” he said. They do help students with short-term needs, but “They’re not fixing the problem, because they’re not addressing the root of the problem.”
Definitions and facts about ‘food deserts’
▪ A food desert is a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.
▪ Tracts qualify as “low access” if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles.
▪ About 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the United States meet the definition of a food desert. These food desert tracts contain 13.5 million people with low access to sources of healthful food. The majority of this population – 82 percent – live in urban areas.
▪ UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina Central University and Durham Technical Community College are all in areas considered food deserts. To look up a food desert map, visit www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert.
What is food insecurity?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food insecurity” and “hunger” differently.
▪ Food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
▪ Hunger is “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.”
Food insecure households report that they worry about food running out, that food does not last, could not afford a balanced meal, cut or skipped meals.
— Source: U.S. Deparment of Agriculture Economic Research Service, www.ers.usda.gov