Community Colleges Tackle Hunger Affecting Students, Community Members

Community colleges provide more than just an education: Many also address vital needs among their students and beyond.
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  • Food insecurity was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Many community college students struggle with food insecurity.
  • Community colleges across the country are stepping up efforts to address hunger in their communities.
  • Officials say community colleges are uniquely positioned to combat food insecurity.

Community colleges are often seen as vital anchor institutions in their communities — and they do more than just provide an education.

As community members and students continue to struggle with food insecurity, many public two-year institutions are stepping up to address that concern with food banks and other initiatives to fight hunger.

Hunger is prevalent on community college campuses.

BestColleges previously reported that about 16% of students who responded to a nationwide survey from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) indicated that they needed help with food from their college, and 44% of those students said they were getting that help from their college.

And although hunger was a persistent problem before the pandemic, it was exacerbated over the past few years — particularly among families with children, according to a New York University study.

Many community colleges are going beyond just helping their students with hunger.

Columbus State Community College's Mid-Ohio Market, for example, offers everything from fresh fruit to a limited supply of diapers to both students and community members who have a household income of less than 200% of the federal poverty level.

Columbus State Community College is located near the heart of downtown Columbus, but despite being a bustling hub for business, low-income residents and students in the area struggle with rising housing prices and a lack of grocery stores in the area.

"Our area that we're in is certainly a food desert," Nancy Smith, assistant director of Columbus State Community College's Student Advocacy Center, told BestColleges. "There aren't really solid grocery stores in the area."

The Mid-Ohio Market is open three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. When it's open, Smith said, the market typically sees between 130 and 200 people a day, and about 15% are students. And many are families.

The market opened in October 2019, serving 79 families, according to statistics from the school. And more than 55,000 people have signed in for service since it opened.

Smith said use of the market surged during the pandemic and estimated that, including the family members of those who use the market, the Mid-Ohio Market reaches about 7,000 people in the area every month.

Other community colleges are combining their culinary training with public service.

At Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland's Eastern Shore, school officials partnered with the Maryland Food Bank to offer culinary students "12 weeks of intensive training combined with social services support, career development, and job placement assistance."

The first class of the FoodWorks partnership graduated earlier this year, according to WMDT.

"We are trying to do things more broadly and address some of the root causes of hunger in a way that reduces people's reliance on food banks," Maryland Food Bank CEO Carmen DelGuercio told WMDT at the time.

Other community colleges have likewise stepped up food banks on their campuses in recent months.

Red Rocks Community College in Colorado, after learning that many students were dealing with food insecurity, organized a food pantry, according to CBS News, and now serves hundreds of students.

Oakton Community College in Illinois held an "Empty Bowls" event in early December to create handmade soup bowls in support of local food pantries.

And a slew of other community colleges have on-campus food banks for students and community members.

In addition to individual college programs, state governments have also stepped up their efforts to combat college food insecurity in recent years.

Pennsylvania earlier this year designated $1 million to cut back on college students' food insecurity, and New Mexico announced a statewide survey in October on food and housing insecurity.

Smith said community colleges are uniquely positioned to make a difference in their communities.

"I think we do have a unique opportunity to kind of connect folks with some of the resources that are out there," she said.

Smith likened community college services to layering "swiss cheese" and gradually covering up holes and gaps with a holistic approach to reaching community members.

Having a community food service on campus also connects residents with higher education and makes it easier for both community members and students to participate in the college's other services, like mentorship programs.

"We have an opportunity to connect them with some services that they might not be aware of, or might feel a little bit timid to engage with people of the stigma that's associated with reaching out for help," she said.