Food pantries crop up to feed strapped college students in Philly, suburbs

 Jenna Klaus community and civic engagement coordinator at Montgomery County Community College stocks the student food bank at the college's West Campus in Pottstown. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Jenna Klaus community and civic engagement coordinator at Montgomery County Community College stocks the student food bank at the college's West Campus in Pottstown. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Quaris Carter is not your typical undergraduate student. At 38, Carter lives in a halfway home and has taken some drastic measures to go to college.

“I donated my blood at the blood bank, and from the money they gave me from that, I paid my application fee to enroll in CCP [Community College of Philadelphia],” said Carter, sporting a CCP T-shirt and small rectangular glasses.

Carter is originally from Houston, but moved to Delaware to live with a friend. When that arrangement fell through, he followed a flier he saw in a homeless shelter and moved into a recovery house in Philadelphia, intent on going to school.

In his second semester in community college, Carter entered the Homeless Student Support Program. He says his school work benefited right away from the added support, which included money for groceries, free meals and a bus pass.

“I was able to go home and study, and I wouldn’t get a headache because I was hungry or anything like that,” said Carter.

Christine Farnum dropped out of college three times before entering the Homeless Students Support Program. Through the program, she was able to get housing assistance for her family and is now on the path to getting a degree in social work.

Dr. Claudia Curry started the program, which helps students who are long term or chronically homeless, in 2012 in response to word of need that trickled up from students through counselors and faculty. While talking with advisers about what classes to take, students ended up sharing how they sometimes “choose between paying for a ticket on the bus to get here or getting lunch,” said Curry.

“We’re not bringing in folks who say I can’t pay my rent this month, but we’ve had folks sleeping in abandoned homes, cars and shelters, transitional homes,” said Curry. Only students who apply for and receive certain kinds of federal aid, like a Pell grant, qualify.

And it’s not just homeless students who sometimes can’t afford to eat or feed their families. According to the U.S. Census bureau, more than half of college students who live on their own are in poverty. More than 60 percent of all college students live with family.

In addition to helping homeless students, CCP offers occasional food assistance through its emergency fund. It’s one of more than100 colleges and universities nationwide with a food assistance program.

‘Stock up for success’

In 2013, Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) launched its own no-questions-asked food pantry for students, under the discreet acronym SUP.

“SUP stands for “stock up for success. So when somebody comes in and says they need to speak to a SUP adviser, that’s the code that they need to talk to someone about getting food,” said Jenna Klaus, assistant director for civic and community engagement at MCCC. She showed off a pantry at the Blue Bell campus, with its neat rows of granola bars, fruit cups and single-serving soups all organized by expiration date and meal time.

Klaus piloted the program in fall of 2013, and it has since expanded to both the Pottstown and Blue Bell campuses, thanks to a grant from the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation.

Visits to the pantry have jumped from about 100 in the pilot semester to almost 700 visits this past fall.

“We’re going to need a bigger pantry pretty soon,” said Klaus. “It’s not a bad problem, but it’s not one we anticipated having so early on.”

She said while the program is helpful, it can’t do what a community food bank can, so repeat visitors get counseling on other local food-assistance options. Federal food assistance such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP is an option for some — but not all — struggling students.

Even if students do qualify, shame can keep them out of a community-based soup kitchen or food bank, said Clare Cady, co-founder of an advisory group called the College and University Food Bank Alliance or CUFBA. “There are a lot of students I know that get very nervous or concerned when we suggest that they access community resources, but are much more comfortable coming to our office, she said.

Cady, an administrator at Oregon State University, co-founded CUFBA in 2012. Since then, she’s seen a lot more interest from schools in starting food banks. CUFBA provides resources on setting up and financing a food bank, as well as a place for food banks to share information.

She says while community colleges and commuter schools – like the schools in this story — tend to have more high-needs students and are more likely to offer food assistance, she’s now getting calls from private universities too.

“We know that getting a college a degree is going to increase a person’s earnings over time,” wherever they go to school, said Cady. “The job market is such that people need degrees in order to get the jobs they want.”

And while students earn those degrees, they need to eat. In the MCCC food pantry, the most popular items, according to Klaus, are old college staples.

“It’s college students, no matter if they’re using the food pantry or picking it up on their own,” she said. “The pizza and the mac and cheese and the ramen noodles are still a big hit with everyone.”

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