Students who experience homelessness are also likely to experience food insecurity: a lack of access to adequate and nutritious food. According to Still Hungry and Homeless in College by the Hope Center, 36% of university students and 42% of community college students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.

Food is a flexible living expense compared to set costs, so students may spend less on food as a strategy to manage their budgets — but food insecurity can severely impact students’ physical and mental health. It hinders their ability to focus, which harms their academic performance, and it is linked to higher rates of obesity, depression, and anxiety. As a result of growing awareness of food insecurity, colleges and institutions around the country are responding to the problem by creating food banks and pantries. A food bank or pantry shouldn’t be an end goal, but instead the start of tackling the larger issue of college affordability. Prior to setting up a food bank or pantry, institutions should conduct a basic needs assessment of the student body to learn about other underlying financial obstacles facing students. Food banks and pantries can be difficult to maintain and manage. Institutions need to consider what type of food is possible to store, where the food is coming from, how it’s getting there, and who’s managing it. As an alternative, or in addition to food banks or pantries, students might be interested in donating meal plans through organizations like Swipe Out Hunger or increasing awareness of and access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Despite these considerations and precautions, food banks and pantries provide important relief and support to students in need, including students experiencing homelessness.

In honor of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, we highlight Holyoke Community College’s innovative strategy of utilizing their food pantry to raise awareness, partner with faculty, and create delicious recipes by creating a “Chopped Challenge.” Below are insights from Rosemary Fiedler, the Thrive Specialist Coordinator at Holyoke Community College.

This project started with a conversation with a faculty member, Laura Christoph, and myself about how to incorporate the HCC food pantry into her 200 level nutrition/culinary class. We started the semester with a tour of the Holyoke Community Food Pantry and allowed students to take pictures of what you would typically find in our food pantry or a local food pantry. Then the students watched a movie about food insecurity and how it affects individuals and families.  Starting the first week of class, during the culinary lab section, the students were given a theme of the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, protein shakes, etc…), which they then had to create with their team in 90 minutes and present to the judges of the day for points on creativity, taste, nutrition, plating, and more. Part of the presentation included describing the nutritional analysis of the prepared meal and explaining if it was rich in protein or vitamin B, and why that was important to a balanced diet. The cookbook was an idea that Laura and I came up with to give to the students and each judge.

The students learned valuable team building and presentation skills. They even had the opportunity to present their dinner creations to the President of HCC in a formal dining experience, for their midterms. This experience highlighted and helped educate students on how relying on food pantries can present challenges for eating healthy.  

This experience reached across departments here at the college; working with the food pantry, Thrive, faculty, and any individual that I invited to participate as a judge. It soon became apparent when people started to bring in Tupperware to take home leftovers that this idea was a hit. People started to approach me asking to be picked as the next judge, and it created an atmosphere of wanting to be a part of this endeavor. It definitely raised awareness of how challenging living and eating healthy could be while relying on food pantries for the majority of your groceries.”

Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week
Tips for Helping Homeless Youth Succeed in College
College and University Food Bank Alliance
Feeding America, Find Your Local Food Bank
Swipe Out Hunger
SNAP Program
CalFresh Brief

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