Thirty-seven percent of public university students in Massachusetts experience food insecurity, according to a recent report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, and the MA Department of Higher Education. This stark reality, combined with the opportunity at the federal and state level to tackle food access as a basic need on campus, led to the filing of comprehensive and visionary legislation titled, “An Act establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Initiative.”
The bill sponsors include Senator Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), Representative Mindy Domb (D-Amherst) and Representative Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill). This critical legislation aims to provide capacity, guidance, and funding to allow 2- and 4-year public colleges and not-for profit institutions of higher education that serve a significant proportion of low-income students, to take several steps in alleviating hunger and food insecurity on campus. The effort is supported by the statewide Hunger-Free Campus Coalition, which formed in the Fall of 2019 to address food insecurity among high-need populations enrolled in MA public colleges and universities.
"Access to food is a fundamental survival need and all students deserve a hunger free campus. Unfortunately, food insecurity and hunger are daily struggles for some Massachusetts college students, many of whom are already saddled by loan debt and the stress of schoolwork,” said Senator Harriette Chandler. “This bill seeks to empower students and colleges to address food insecurity together and to chart a path towards hunger free campuses statewide.”
"Burdened by student debt, college students often work more than one job while attending school to help meet their expenses, and still have to make painful decisions between paying for dinner or buying textbooks. This legislation partners with campus communities to build their capacity to address student hunger with meaningful and effective interventions. I’m proud to join my colleagues to offer a mechanism to support campuses to engage in this crucial work,” said Representative Mindy Domb.
“Food insecurity is a solvable problem. The pandemic has further exacerbated hunger, especially for college students already struggling to get by. In a state where our cost of living is so high and navigating support can be complicated, solving food insecurity will require a systems approach that builds capacity, efficiency and meets people where they’re at,” said Representative Andy Vargas. “At the end of the day, college students can’t learn or take advantage of professional opportunities while on an empty stomach. We can fix this.”
The bill includes steps such as establishing a hunger-free campus taskforce comprised of both students and administration staff, notifying students of their potential eligibility for federal and state nutrition benefits, developing a student meal credit sharing program, creating an emergency fund to support students in crisis, providing capacity-building funds for campuses to implement these best practices, and more.
In 2018, noting an important need, Quinsigamond Community College established a Food Pantry and Resource Center to address the food insecurity its students were facing.
“We have witnessed first-hand the hunger our students are experiencing. Many are first-generation college students, working for a better life for themselves and their families. They face an uphill battle that often includes food insecurity issues. The pandemic has compounded the hunger many in our community face. Today well over 400 Quinsigamond Community College students are regularly utilizing the college’s food pantry to feed themselves and their families. Food insecurity is a systemic issue in our community that can no longer be ignored. It is our duty as educators and citizens of the Commonwealth to remove food insecurity from our higher education system,” Luis G. Pedraja, Ph.D., QCC President.
This legislation and the movement behind this hunger-free campus effort comes during a national hunger crisis. Massachusetts is seeing the largest increase in food insecurity at 59% when compared to any other state in the nation as a result of COVID-19. Many students are currently off campus; however, there is an opportunity to ensure that when they return, their schools are equipped to address one of their most basic needs – food.
“We must remove the stigma that is often associated with college students who experience food insecurity. I have the opportunity to volunteer at the food pantry. It opened my eyes to the needs of our students and the community as a whole. My hope is that this legislative bill will shine a light on the issue of food insecurity and make a positive and lasting impact on our students. No one should be denied the chance of a better life because they are hungry,” Linda Maykel, D.D.S., QCC Foundation President.
“Worcester County Food Bank supports food pantries at three institutions of higher learning because we believe that no college student should have to choose between buying food and paying college expenses. It’s normal for college students to worry about grades, papers, and exams; they shouldn’t have to also worry about where their next meal is coming from. We support this important legislation because the services it provides are an investment in their education and lifelong achievement,” Jean McMurray, Worcester County Food Bank CEO.
The Massachusetts public higher education system serves over 250,000 students annually. Due to historic and contemporary divestment and discrimination, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ students disproportionately experience food insecurity – at rates of 52%, 47%, and 46% respectively. Student parents also experience higher rates of food insecurity at 53%. This initiative prioritizes equity and ensures that all students, particularly these groups who are traditionally underserved, have access to food.
“It’s difficult to learn when you have been at work and school all day but not have had means to eat. Hunger, like homework and paying tuition, is a reality for college students. This legislation acknowledges that food insecure high school students do not stop being food insecure upon entering college. It provides guidelines and resources to tackle this issue. As hunger advocates in central Massachusetts where lack of transportation makes things more difficult, we’re excited to support this legislation that will help students focus on school and successfully complete their education,” Gina Plata-Nino, Central West Justice Center.
Actions at the federal level, such as the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in December that expanded SNAP eligibility for college students, have created recent momentum around the issue of college student hunger. The MA Department of Higher Education and Department of Transitional Assistance proactively sent letters to 94,000 low-income college students recently to inform them of this expanded eligibility. While these measures are effective short-term solutions, colleges need long-term anti-hunger strategies to combat food insecurity, and implementing those strategies is the intent of this bill.
About the Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Coalition
The Massachusetts Hunger-Free Campus Coalition was formed in the fall of 2019 to address food insecurity among high-need populations enrolled in MA public colleges and universities.
Collectively, the coalition is working to leverage and expand existing resources and services including maximizing student enrollment in federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, supporting meal swipe options with campus food vendors, ensuring that campuses work with MA food banks to expand food pantries, and other initiatives designed to address food insecurity among the student population.
Current members include: The Greater Boston Food Bank, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Mass Law Reform Institute (MLRI), Worcester County Food Bank, Central West Justice Center, One Family, Project Bread, Boston Office of Food Access, Quinsigamond Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, The Open Door of Gloucester, uAspire, Worcester State University, Holyoke Community College, Springfield College, Bristol Community College, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Salem State University, Roxbury Community College, UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program, North Shore Community College, and The Amherst Survival Center.
Our goal is to ensure equity and incorporate student voices as we work to make Massachusetts college campuses hunger free.