Almost half of college students don’t have enough money to regularly buy healthy and culturally relevant food. In Oregon, less than a third of those students applied for the federal food assistance program to help prevent food insecurity. But advocates are hoping those numbers will change.
Daniel Aguirre, who goes by Dray, is a second year student at Central Oregon Community College in Bend. The first-generation college student wants to become a nurse. But his lack of stable housing and food can make it difficult for him to concentrate on school.
“There's actually a lot of people who are homeless out here,” said Aguirre. “There's a lot of students that are struggling, [and] a lot of people don't really know that, which is frustrating.”
He usually stays in a trailer located on his friends property and goes to a gym in order to take a shower. Since the trailer was vandalized a few years ago, a lot of the equipment doesn't work. Aguirre often experiences food insecurity because the broken propane system prevents him from cooking.
Becoming more involved with culture clubs not only provided him with lunch or snacks he could eat, but it also led him to become involved in student government. Aguirre ended up joining a group of students who lobbied in Salem and D.C in 2020, before the pandemic started, because he doesn't want anyone to continue to experience basic needs insecurities.
“I know there's some students that have gone days without food and it's hard for them to stay awake or focused on their class,” said Aguirre. “And it makes them either drop out or just really struggle. So I believe those students should never have to pay for food or worry about food — that should be a given. That’s like a human right.”
Effort to Meet Basic Needs
14 out of 17 Oregon community colleges participated in the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s #RealCollege survey in 2019. The survey results showed 41% of students said they experienced food insecurity within a month prior to the survey. That’s almost as high as the national average of 45%.
Student advocates say a university or college office that could specifically focus on meeting students’ basic needs could make a big difference. In fact, it already has.
Miguel Arellano Sanchez has been the basic needs navigator at Oregon State University since 2018. He’s been able to relate to and engage with students based on his own experiences with food and housing insecurity when he was enrolled in the university.
During his first two years as the basic needs navigator, he helped students access more than $800,000 in benefits. About half of that funding is because he’s helped students apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits.
“Once they come to my office, ‘Okay, you’re food insecure? Here's the pantry,'” said Sanchez. “You're homeless, right? Here's emergency housing. Oh, you don't have textbooks, let me get your textbooks. Oh, you don't have a laptop? You get your laptop.”
Sanchez’ work at OSU partially inspired HB 2835, currently under consideration in Salem. If passed, it would put a basic needs navigator at all 24 Oregon’s public universities and community colleges.
The bill was developed by the Oregon Student Association which lobbies for more equitable policies on behalf of college students, as well as by Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, which educates and advocates for policies to help end hunger.
Oregon Could be Early Adopter of Legislation
California has a program called the Student Opportunity and Access Program. Established in 1978, part of the initiative includes allowing higher education institutions to provide a liaison for students who are foster youth or experiencing homelessness.
Currently, there’s a bill pending in the Illinois legislature which would designate at least one employee who works within the financial aid department, campus housing service, or any other appropriate office to serve as a liaison between the institution and a student experiencing homelessness.
Community colleges in Oregon have been doing some of this work to fight against food and housing insecurities for years.
Currently in its fifth year, the Oregon community college STEP consortia helps students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with college and career readiness. The program initially started as a consortium between six community colleges. In the last two years, it’s been expanded to include all 17 Oregon community colleges.
The Oregon Pathways to Opportunity program started three years ago to provide local, state and federal resources to help underrepresented students access college. Since then, a pilot initiative has put four basic needs navigators in community colleges for the last two years. But the lack of state funding and the drop in enrollment means not all institutions can afford to pay for a resource that has been proven to help students succeed.
Kate Kinder is the Dean of Career Pathways and Skills Training at Portland Community College. She’s hoping the legislature will pass another bill to help underrepresented students pursuing higher education.
“We literally do not have funding to do the work, and have invested as much as we can,” said Kinder.
Impact of Food Assistance Programs
Theresa Mai is a third year public policy major at OSU. She’s a first generation college student and comes from a low income household. She sometimes skipped meals in high school and said the habit only became worse when she went to college. Since she struggled to pay for tuition and housing, she often skipped meals in order to save money.
But she had to figure out a way to keep her stomach from grumbling during classes. She tried clicking on her pencil or drawing, but it wasn’t enough.
“So I'm like, ‘Okay, let's pinch my stomach, see how that goes,’” said Mai. And then it kind of made me focus on the pain. Which I thought was more helpful because I feel like, naturally, our bodies pay attention to pain more than hunger.”
Mai didn’t apply for food stamps because she didn’t know that was an option for college students. But she was able to receive food assistance funds through OSU’s Human Services and Resource Center — the department where the basic needs navigator works.
“Back in my freshman year, I feel like I was focusing on just surviving,” said Mai. “Now that I'm getting more food, I don't have to worry about where my food is coming from. I feel like I'm getting food that makes me feel better. So I feel more confident — so much energy in my classes.”
Mai lost 10 pounds when she was starving herself — dropping her weight to about 80 pounds. But now that she’s been consistently eating healthy meals, she’s started to gain some of the weight back.
In 2019, 63% of surveyed Oregon community college students experienced some kind of basic needs insecurities.
And that number, which doesn’t include students at universities, has most likely increased during the pandemic and after last year’s devastating wildfires. But students and advocates are hoping more conversations about basic needs insecurities could not only lead to more resources, but also take away the social stigma.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Education Writers Association.