A four-year university student might not seem like the face of hunger, but state Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said “college students are not an exception” to the more than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians struggling with food insecurity.
Miller toured Penn State’s student-run volunteer food pantry Lion’s Pantry Tuesday afternoon as part of the Wolf administration’s Hunger Action Month tour, which aims to emphasize charitable food networks and other resources that fight food insecurity across the state.
A campus study in August found that 48% of student respondents had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. Statewide, a January 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that at least 1 in 3 college students do not have enough to eat.
Lion’s Pantry is open to all students, staff and faculty at Penn State from 3-5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. It serves about 50-60 students each week across all its operations, which include the main pantry on North Campus, four “cub pantries” at different locations across campus and its food delivery program through the Abba Java coffeehouse downtown.
Cub pantries are located at the Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity, Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, the Intramural Building and the Student Care and Advocacy Office. Students and staff in need are also able to put in a food order online, which is then packaged and dropped off at Abba Java for pickup, said Lion’s Pantry President Sayre Bradley, a senior at Penn State.
“I’ve worked with students who are working almost full-time hours on top of their classes, just trying to put food on their tables for themselves,” she said. “We have grad students who have families and young children that they need to provide for, and I’m also working with students that are struggling with homelessness.”
Lion’s Pantry is able to connect students with other resources on campus, since many clients who come to the pantry are struggling with other issues, said University Park Undergraduate Association President Laura McKinney. As Penn State’s student government, UPUA sees its mission as “reducing the financial burden for students,” and helped expand cub pantries and stock menstrual products in campus bathrooms.
In addition to food, Lion’s Pantry uses the monetary donations it receives to stock pricier items like paper products, toiletries, cooking oils and other household goods, said Bradley. It is looking at stocking fresh produce in the future, though challenges in turning product quickly remain.
Miller said the state is working on several initiatives that would temper food insecurity and help provide more access to resources already available. She and her staff are working to protect the state-administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from proposed federal cuts of $213 billion over the next 10 years that would mostly affect seniors, the unemployed and low-income working families.
“We all have more we need to do, which is why these federal changes that are being proposed to SNAP are really problematic,” she said. “We should be looking for ways to expand these programs, and how do we help more people. We shouldn’t be looking at ways to reduce the number of people covered because that’s just going to result in more food insecurity.”
In fact, Miller said, the state is looking at expanding SNAP requirements to include most four-year college students in need (one requirement is that recipients must work at least 20 hours a week, which many students are unable to do). However, “it’s a lot more challenging, there are a lot more federal rules,” she said.
State officials are also looking into creating an online, statewide database and resource connector that would allow people in need of services to enter their information and have referrals sent out to various county and state organizations that provide aid.
“The No. 1 thing I hear from people that we serve is, ‘I know there are resources out there that can help me, but I have no idea where to go to find them,’” Miller said.
Above all, she said, the state and local organizations must work together to bring the issue of food insecurity “out into the sunlight.”
“We want to raise awareness and try to eliminate the stigma and let people know it’s OK to ask for help,” Bradley said.