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Cokie and Steven Roberts: No more ‘poverty naps’

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

When college students return to their campuses in the fall, many will face a growing problem that threatens to undermine their chances for success.

Hunger.

Recent surveys agree that more than one-third of all college students suffer at times from bouts of food insecurity. The rate is far higher for students with an extra risk factor: belonging to a racial minority, having a single parent or being the first in their family to attend college, for example.

For these students, hunger means “sitting in a classroom hoping no one hears your stomach growl,” Christopher Nellum of the Education Trust-West told U.S. News. “It means spending time worrying about where to get food for the next week rather than studying for next week’s exam.”

A New York Times report on local campuses told these stories: “A senior at Lehman College in the Bronx dreams of starting her day with breakfast. An undergraduate at New York University said he has been so delirious from hunger he’s caught himself walking down the street not realizing where he’s going. A health sciences student at Stony Brook University on Long Island describes ‘poverty naps,’ where she decides to go to sleep rather than deal with her hunger pangs.”

In one sense, the problem reflects good news: the growing diversity of student bodies, from both racial and socioeconomic perspectives. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office says only 29% of those now in college are “traditional students,” who enroll right out of high school and depend on their parents for support. The rest, especially in community colleges, can be older and financially fragile — often with children of their own.

But federal aid programs have not kept up with this changing profile and rising need. Forty years ago, Pell grants, the main source of public support for needy students, covered half the average cost at two-year colleges and 39% at public four-year colleges. Today, according to statistics from the Department of Education, those rates have dropped to 37% at community schools and 19% at bigger universities.

The result could be called the “hunger gap,” which Steve sees firsthand at George Washington University, where he has taught for almost 30 years. The way the federal government calculates a student’s annual need is woefully inadequate, and even students with “full rides” can have trouble affording full meals.

“Food insecurity is a college completion issue,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading scholar in campus hunger at Temple University, told the Atlantic. “We’re undermining our federal investment in financial aid by not paying attention to this. We have to stop pretending like living expenses are not educational expenses.”

One answer is a rapid expansion of campus-based food banks. An organization called the College and University Food Bank Alliance started with 15 schools in 2012 and now counts about 700 members.

The Store at George Washington is one of them. It’s housed on the ground floor of a large dorm, but the entrance is tucked away in an obscure hallway so students don’t feel stigmatized when they use it. All students who register with The Store and get the passcode for the entrance can take what they need — no limits, no supervision, all on the honor system.

Many campuses have tried other innovations. Programs called Share Meals and Swipe Out Hunger enable students to donate their unused dining hall credits to hungry classmates. Sodexo USA, which manages dining halls on many campuses, now has a system of alerting students to “leftovers from catered events,” reports the Times. An urban farm at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn produces fresh produce that’s distributed free to students.

One critical change would involve SNAP, the federal nutrition program once known as food stamps. Its rules regarding student eligibility remain highly restrictive and confusing, and the GAO reports that about 2 million students who could have qualified for aid in 2017 did not receive it.

Simplifying the rules and extending eligibility to more students makes total sense. But the Trump administration is actually trying to reduce the program and eliminate recipients, even as the need continues to grow.

That’s both profoundly immoral and utterly counter-productive. Programs to combat hunger easily pay for themselves: Students who don’t have to worry about food do better in school, graduate at higher rates and are more likely to become productive taxpayers.

The public policy goal should be completely clear and compelling: No more growling stomachs in classrooms. No more “poverty naps” instead of lunch.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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