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Local colleges battle growing trend of hunger on campus

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

September is Hunger Action Month, and one place where it’s increasingly important to fight hunger is on college campuses.

More undergraduate students than ever before are financially independent from their parents, which puts them at greater risk to experience food insecurity, according to a 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. But college campuses are often places where hunger gets overlooked.

“I think a lot of people for a long time didn’t realize that hunger is a problem on college campuses, but in fact it’s a horrible epidemic,” Catherine Shick, communications director of FeedMore WNY told WBFO.

So-called “non-traditional students” who are either financially independent, have their own dependent children, delay college enrollment, enroll part-time, or who are employed full-time while in school now make up 71% of all college students, according to the GAO report. An increasing percentage of students from low-income households have also been enrolling in college over the past several decades.

All of those factors make student populations more likely to experience food insecurity, which the GAO estimates ranges from nine to more than 50% on campuses across the country.

Trocaire College, a private Catholic school in South Buffalo, found that out the hard way—when a work study student passed out in the library in the fall of 2014.

“As they quizzed this student, they learned eventually that he had fainted because he hadn’t eaten anything substantive for about three days,” said Bob Shearn, Trocaire’s director of mission, ministry and service.

The incident prompted Trocaire to take a hard look at hunger on its campus of about 1,300 students. Shearn said the college analyzed national and regional data and conducted a student survey. The results were striking: One-third of students said they experienced food insecurity at some point.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Mary Rapisardi, left, a massage therapy student, and Sister Marie Andre Main, coordinator of food security at Trocaire College.

Even Sister Marie Andre Main, a registered nurse who’s worked in health and wellness at Trocaire for 25 years, said she was surprised by the figure. But she added she had long known there was some need for a food pantry on campus.

“Many times I went over to our common across the street and got them…I went over and I made sandwiches for them, something for lunch because they were hungry,” she said. “I could tell. I said, ‘Why don’t you come back in 10 minutes and I’ll have something for you?’”

Today, Main is coordinator of a new food pantry at Trocaire College called Catherine’s Cupboard. It’s named after Catherine McAuley, the Irish woman who founded Sisters of Mercy, the order Main belongs to.

The pantry is modest in size and runs solely on donations, but for Trocaire’s majority of non-traditional students, it’s making a big impact.

“This really helps out,” said Mary Rapisardi, a massage therapy student who went back to school after several years out of the workforce. “I’m a mom of three. My oldest is 16, a teenage boy. When we have finals hitting us left and right, aside from finances, getting to the store without transportation and having it [the pantry] here—it really helps.”

Adult students, especially those with children like Rapisardi, face the same tough choices as other community members. Shick, of FeedMore WNY, said it can often come down to decisions like, “Do I fill up my gas and put gas in my car this week or do I, you know, get enough food to feed my family? Do I pay for my expensive medication or do I go get groceries this week?”

Credit Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo
The University at Buffalo collected donations and promoted its Blue Table food pantry during summer orientation 2019.

Benjamin Fabian, assistant director for student support at the University at Buffalo, said he encounters the same issue at UB, where an estimated 20% of students are at risk of hunger.

“We recognize that the overall cost of being a student is really significant, and that could include tuition or living expenses, personal expenses, books or supplies and more often than not, our students are carrying this responsibility themselves,” Fabian told WBFO. “And when a student’s budget is impacted by some type of unanticipated expense, food is one of the first things that is sacrificed.”

Both UB and SUNY Buffalo State University have longstanding food pantries complete with online ordering systems that allow students to discretely select and pick up groceries during times of need. SUNY Erie also recently opened new food pantries on its city and north campus, as per Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 “No Student Goes Hungry” initiative, which mandated that all SUNY and CUNY campuses operate food pantries on campus.

Rapisardi said no one should feel ashamed about taking advantage of food pantries on campus.

“Take the time [to check it out]. It will probably make your studies improve so much. It just takes a weight off your shoulders.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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