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Wall Street Journal

April 10, 2015

Wall Street Journal

By MIRIAM JORDAN

Updated April 7, 2015 9:21 a.m. ET

 

DAVIS, Calif.—For several months last year, between her classes at the University of California campus here, Sierra Henderson stopped in at a tiny basement room to pick up free canned vegetables, pasta and cereal.

“If the pantry wasn’t here I might have had to consider taking time off school to work full-time,” said the 21-year-old food-science major.

Food pantries, where students in need can stock up on groceries and basic supplies, started cropping up on campuses in large numbers after the recession began in 2007. More than 200 U.S. colleges, mostly public institutions, now operate pantries, and more are on the way, even as the economy rebounds.

Among factors driving the trend: Tuition has soared 25% at four-year public institutions since 2007, according to the College Board, and costs such as housing, books and transportation have also risen significantly in recent years.

Meanwhile, more students from low-income families are attending college. For instance, four out of every 10 undergraduates in the UC system, which includes UC Berkeley and UCLA, now hail from households with an annual income of $50,000 or less.

The stigma attached to receiving free food has diminished among students as so-called food security—a term used by the U.S. government to describe reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food—is regarded on campuses increasingly as a right.

ENLARGE

Unit director Tara Storm explains how the pantry at University of California, Davis works to help students. PHOTO: MAX WHITTAKER/PRIME FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We have students receiving full aid, but then sleeping in somebody’s car because they could not afford to pay rent,” said UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi. Many students have less support from home than before because of wage stagnation, she said. Post-recession, “we have a large number of students, even those who don’t qualify for aid, [managing] on their own,” she said.

About 14.5% of U.S. households experienced some form of food insecurity in 2013, according to the Department of Agriculture’s latest data.

The extent of the problem at colleges is unclear, but it is a growing concern among educators since it can affect academic performance and attendance. Janet Napolitano, president of the 10-campus University of California, which enrolls 188,300 undergraduates, recently launched an initiative that includes assessing student hunger.

Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the Michigan State University Food Bank and co-founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance, said more students now have to make “conscious choices” about whether to spend their funds on a meal. Since it was established in 2012 with 13 campuses, the alliance has grown to 183 members. An unspecified number of colleges with pantries aren’t affiliated, the alliance says.

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond joined the alliance and started a pantry after a survey showed 57% of students at the state institution had unwillingly gone without food at some point.

ENLARGE

Student Sierra Henderson, who obtains food from the pantry at University of California, Davis. PHOTO: MAX WHITTAKER/PRIME FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When VCU’s RamPantry opened last year, demand quickly outstripped supply. “We had assumed a stigma would keep people away, and that just hasn’t been the case,” said Terrence Walker, staff adviser to the student-run pantry.

Like many other campus pantries, it has entered partnerships with a local food bank, supermarket, restaurant and farm to collect food and other items, which enable it to supply groceries to up to 100 students a week. RamPantry, similar to most college food banks, doesn’t require users to provide evidence of hardship.

Many of its customers are first-generation college students “whose parents can’t cut them checks,” said Mr. Walker. “They don’t stop being poor because they go to college.”

On the University of California’s campuses, the proportion of low-income students has risen sharply in recent years. Nearly 20% come from households with annual income under $26,000, compared with 13% in 2008.

In 2009, UCLA became the first UC campus to start a food pantry when then-student Abdallah Jadallah approached administrators about students going hungry. The pantry’s founders decided to guarantee user anonymity, says official Antonio Sandoval, who cleared out a storage room for the pantry. News of free food in a room with no signage beyond a number spread rapidly.

ENLARGE

Rules posted at the pantry at the University of California, Davis. PHOTO: MAX WHITTAKER/PRIME FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Nearly six years later the pantry continues to operate, using an honor system. There is no sign-in, no registration and no attendant.

“To this day we don’t know who goes in there. We just know we put out food by the hour and it goes,” said Mr. Sandoval, who heads the Community Programs Office that caters to underprivileged students.

In 2010, the UC system added a food-security question to its biannual student questionnaire. Forty-nine percent of respondents reported skipping meals to save money “occasionally” to “very often.”

UC Davis opened its pantry in 2012 in partnership with the county food bank. It now also receives donations from local businesses and individuals and the student farm. Food drives also help supply it.

As many as 300 students each week visit the pantry, choosing from items that include food and toiletries. They must show their student identification, but no names are recorded. Tara Storm, the student director, says usage peaked during the recession then began to decline. Last fall, she noted a new “surge” when Ms. Napolitano announced a tuition increase was likely imminent.

Pantry user Ms. Henderson grew up in the working-class town of Inglewood near Los Angeles. Her financial aid covers her tuition and provides her with student loans, which she has accumulated to the tune of $15,000. She also works part-time.

When unforeseen expenses arise—as happened recently when her computer needed emergency repair—she can’t burden her parents, she said. She took out a short-term loan to fix it. She also sold some personal items to make a few dollars. When things get especially tight, she says, she’ll visit the Davis pantry.

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com

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