A recent study by researchers from Oregon State University, Western Oregon University and the Benton County Health Department found that 59 percent of college students at one Oregon university (not OSU) reported being ‘food insecure’ at some point during the previous year. (see http://bit.ly/Lfmqu0 for details).
The reality of food insecurity among college students is nothing new to Clare Cady, coordinator of the OSU Human Services Resource Center (HSRC). Her office provides students with access to the OSU Food Pantry, intermediary services between students and agencies that provide rental assistance, utility assistance, food stamps, childcare, food boxes, and health insurance, as well as help applying for food stamps and connections to other campus and community resources. The program has been in place since 2009. In 2010-2011, and again in 2011-2012, the HSRC saw demand increase 100 percent over the previous year, but this year, demand seems to have leveled off.
“We’re happy to see the numbers begin to flatten out,” Cady said. She believes this is not due to a lessening need, however, but to a successful outreach program that has finally gotten word out to the population most in need of their services.
In the 2012-2013 school year, HSRC made 7,598 points of contact, many of them with students who returned several times for services. More than 2,800 Mealbux awards were handed out, which supplement a student’s food budget if they qualify. More than 2,500 people were served at the OSU Food Pantry, which is affiliated with Linn-Benton Food Share. And 188 volunteers worked with the program last year.
Students might be coming in for an emergency food box during a particularly difficult month. Or they might be in need of ongoing support and aid. The HSRC staff is trained to respond to many different demands, and increasingly, Cady said they’re seeing not just financial difficulties, but other underlying issues such as mental health struggles or a past criminal record, which are amplifying the financial duress. Staff are ready to direct students to resources for those other issues, even walking students over to Student Health Services or Counseling and Psychological Services, if the need arises.
But much of what they do can be done in-house, negating the need to “send students running all over campus,” Cady said, when what they want is immediate help, and often a listening ear.
The HSRC is considered a model program for other universities, and has received national media attention for their work. Last year, OSU co-founded the College and University Food Bank Alliance with Michigan State, which currently has 44 member schools. They also helped start the NASPA Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community, to provide student affairs experts with core knowledge around socio-economic and class issues facing current college students. Cady was just named chair of the group.
The HSRC is primarily student fee-funded, while the food pantry operates on private donations. While faculty, staff and students can donate actual food items, the pantry is small, and monetary donations are preferred. One dollar can purchase 15 pounds of food, and organizers can use the funds to directly buy items that are in greatest demand.
Another area where HSRC is expanding their services is in training for faculty and staff who want to learn more about issues of class, socioeconomic status and poverty among students, and how those issues impact student success. Cady said they’re targeting professionals who work directly with students, such as academic advisors, and offer a variety of training opportunities for those interested in increasing their knowledge around the issue of poverty and food insecurity. The training is offered for free.
~ Theresa Hogue