Higher Education

Launching a Program for Food and Housing Insecure College Students: A Step-by-Step Approach

About the Author

By way of background, I am a retired health care executive, consultant and lawyer. I helped convene, and serve as an advisor to, the College Student Basic Needs Program profiled in this blog. I am also a Trustee Board Member of Gwynedd Mercy University (GMercyU), a Catholic liberal arts university in suburban Philadelphia with over 1,900 undergraduate and over 800 graduate students. When I joined the Board five years ago, I was surprised to learn that many of our students were experiencing food and housing insecurity. Encouraged by our mission staff and a supportive administration, I began the journey of putting together a coalition of community-based organizations to address the problem. Montgomery County Community College, a 2-year college with more than 7,000 students and a campus in nearby Blue Bell, PA campus and another in Pottstown, PA (MC3) and Manna on Main Street, a nearby well-run non-profit committed to ending hunger in our region (Manna), quickly joined.
— John C.S. Kepner, Trustee Board Member, Gwynedd Mercy University (GMercyU)

Our story begins with this statement from a student who participated in a 2018 focus group: 

“I’m a foreigner. I don’t have a family paying for me; I came here by myself. I have a child so I was working full-time; but when I started going to school … I had to drop down some hours. So, now my rent is more than what I make a month…. So, what are you going to have to cut down to pay what is important to you? Sometimes it’s food, sometimes utilities, sometimes it’s gas… Because you want to make something of yourself, you struggle.” 

Now, over three years later, our College Student Basic Needs Program is launching a comprehensive pilot program to address food and housing insecurity for at least 100 under-resourced students at GMercyU and MC3. Key features are: 

We plan to extend the program to other colleges and food pantries across the County if the pilot is successful. We still have a lot to do, but our experience so far may be instructive for other organizations addressing college student food and housing insecurity.

Step 1: Define Your Mission

We began in 2017 by GMercyU reaching out to MC3and Manna. Our three organizations (core partners) shared a common goal of helping food insecure students succeed academically. GMercyU and MC3 had just opened small food pantries. Manna saw serving food insecurestudents as an important mission extension. Our longer-range goal is to persuade academic leaders with hard data, measured outcomes and awareness building that helping under-resourced students will improve their academic performance and keep them in school and that doing so is core to the academic mission. This will, we hope, convince leaders to sustain our program with annually budgeted dollars, notwithstanding competing priorities.

Step 2: Take a Stepped Approach

During phase one (2018-19), we conducted research to address the scope and nature of our students’ food insecurity needs. We surveyed what other colleges across the country were doing, participated in Temple University’s Hope Center national survey, and conducted six student focus groups. We found that a large percentage of our students experienced food insecurity, and that food insecurity was inextricably tied to housing insecurity, jobs, child care, transportation, parking and other challenges that under-resourced students face. Our national research identified solutions that informed our phase two program planning. 

Step 3: Pick Your Partners Well

As our findings emerged, we invited four other non-profit organizations (supporting partners) to join our consortium. These organizations were identified because they had comprehensive food and housing expertise, were well-established and funded, had excellent reputations, were well-known to our three core partners, had connections to other resources and gave us reach across our very large county, all of which we felt would put us in a better position for post-phase two sustainability. 

Step 4: Be Highly Organized

Managing seven partners through a multi-phased, multi-faceted project requires a coordinated approach. So, we added key organizational elements, one-by-one: 

Step 5: Show Me the Money

No Money, No Mission is an old, but true, adage. Particularly so when your starting point is zero dollars and your partners, with tight budgets, can only contribute in-kind personnel. We advanced our fundraising by consistently: 

Step 6: Resilience

The pandemic hit, requiring all three campuses to shut down in March 2020 on the eve of our pilot program launch. With no students on campus, we had to scrap the launch. However, not wanting to risk loss of momentum, we put our energy into being as well-funded and ready as possible for a new launch in Spring 2022. 

We began a multi-pronged, successful effort to raise more money than originally planned; selected a fiscal intermediary for grant administration and budgeting; researched and selected affordable housing options to implement; recruited interns for administrative support; negotiated a more flexible development and licensing agreement for our food ordering software; selected a developer for our “Hub” website; convened the academic team to design our research element; and adopted a racial and social equity framework to inform every aspect of our program. 

Importantly, we also managed through several core team personnel changes. We were able to do so because our team members feel a shared responsibility to not let our mission or each other down.

Step 7: Manage Constraints

Every program has constraints. Actively managing them is the point. Our three most significant have been: 1) how to get seven partners to work efficiently as a program becomes progressively more complex; 2) raising enough money in time to fund planned program expenses; and 3) gaining and maintaining institutional support. I’ve already touched on the first two. Here’s a perspective on the third. 

Our project has external funding, public relations and even government relations implications and internal personnel support requirements. These make it important for our core team members to keep their respective “higher-up” executives and lateral colleagues informed and available to facilitate institutional approvals. Examples run the gamut: grant support letters from our academic partner presidents; executive attendance at ribbon-cutting ceremonies; reporting to governing board committees; getting assurances that grants requests don’t conflict with institutional priorities; what percentage of dedicated personnel time is available for ever-increasing project work; and obtaining the assistance of other expert personnel not directly engaged in the project. These constraints require continual and careful attention to avoid administrative logjams and delays. 

But, we have found that managing these constraints affords opportunities to build board, executive and lateral support. Getting presidential letters of support for grants from time-to-time opens the door to keeping executives aware of, and educated about, our program. Reporting about our program to boards and governance committees charged with mission-oversight do too. Spreading the news of each new grant is another way, proving the old adage that “success breeds success”.

Step 8: Value Creation Through Collaboration

Collaboration can yield results. An example follows. While a continuing focus of our project has been food insecurity, during 2021 we convened a housing work group with four consortium members to research and evaluate numerous short and long-term affordable housing solutions. We settled on two for now. 

The first is a cost-finding model developed by GMercyU’s financial staff which calculates the numerous factors (e.g., debt service on financing to build the dorm and common area maintenance expense) that contribute to the carrying cost of vacant dorm space which can be made available to students with affordable housing needs. The students will pay what they can afford, supplemented by grants from a new housing scholarship fund (described below). GMercyU will recover some or all of the otherwise non-reimbursable carrying cost of otherwise unoccupied dorm rooms. One work group member will offer financial management and other support services for housing scholarship students. When fully refined and tested, the model will be available to other colleges across the county.

The second, sourced by another work group member, is a housing scholarship fund. Our consortium was awarded a competitive “Home4Good” grant ($45,000) under a state-wide Federal Home Loan Bank program to seed the fund. This has been supplemented ($5,000) by a local church sourced by another work group member. Students who live on campus and off will be eligible for these scholarships, including benefitting from the affordable dorm cost model referenced above. Our housing work group is now developing the criteria and process for awarding these scholarships for the next academic year. 

Finally, we are examining a strategy to access American Rescue Plan Act funding administered through our county recovery office to supplement the affordable scholarship fund and provide funds for more capital intensive off-campus housing models our work group has identified. 

Step 9: The Secret Sauce – Trust

The currency of successful collaboratives is trust. Our consortium has knit together a trust rooted in the joy of working together to help under-resourced students, understanding each other’s needs, respecting each other’s concerns and not disappointing each other. We do this by asking questions, active listening, being open to new ideas, being responsive and being genuine with each other. All by Zoom. 

Our plate is quite full now, but we sleep well. So may our students.