NEWS Massachusetts could do more to help college students facing food insecurity, advocates say

Massachusetts could do more to help college students facing food insecurity, advocates say

University students have a lot to juggle, from full-time study to part-time jobs and various other obligations. But we often don’t think about or talk about college students who also face food insecurity. One in three public college students in Massachusetts is food insecure, with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students disproportionately affected. Rising prices due to inflation, and the burden of student loans, certainly don’t help.

But what many students don’t know is that help is available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Only 20% of food insecure students take advantage of SNAP benefits to help put food on the plate.

Joined by Gina Plata-Nino, deputy director of SNAP’s Food Research Action Center and co-chair of the Hunger-Free Campus Alliance, and Quinsigamond Community College student Brittney Richards All circumstances are considered Moderator Arun Rath discusses what is being done to help students find resources to help alleviate food insecurity. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Alan Russ: Gina, let’s start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about the background of the Alliance’s work and its mission strategy?

Gina Plata-Nino: We have these students who are going to school or struggling to make ends meet, who are working full-time jobs and still can’t afford food. There is one program available, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but we know that less than 20 percent of food insecure students participate in it. So our alliance came together about three years ago. It is made up of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and the Food Bank of Greater Boston. Together, we decided to address this issue, make sure students know about these resources, and make it easier and more flexible for students to apply and stay in SNAP.

Russ: So, Brittney, why do you think awareness of SNAP benefits on college campuses is so low?

Britney Richards: I think in my own experience, using these SNAP benefits is just a shame.Is such that [my] College campuses try to improve, create more awareness so that we know these resources are available. But I think the stigma is really inaccessible. Many students on our campus have this tension that they don’t necessarily know about these resources.

It also has to do with the fact that on community campuses, it’s not just a black and white situation for traditional college students — and it doesn’t have to be at traditional colleges either. You have to take into account that there are other things going on: homelessness, mental health, having somewhere to cook while you get SNAP. So there are a lot of factors that can play into it…it’s very unique to each person’s individual situation.

Russ: So it looks great, there are two issues in terms of advocacy, but there is another deeper level of really communicating with students.

Richards: Yes, I would say that. I think a lot of colleges are trying to spread the word. Part of myself is the Hunger League campus movement that we do. As a student panelist, I spoke on behalf of QCC at Worcester State University. So that’s the thing that breaks down that stigma. So it does have a lot to do with stigma. There are many universities that are trying to implement different programs like a greenhouse or educating students about the benefits of SNAP. It’s just the fact that a lot of them do have these food insecurities and don’t know the resources and have that option.

In addition to students, there are other factors in their lives. So getting that help is definitely a two-way street.

Russ: On that note, I just want to mention that when you’re there, people can probably hear Britney’s adorable newborn in the background, which I think speaks volumes about the progress the students have made. You are a full-time parent because you are also a full-time student.

Richards: Yes, I am a stay at home parent. I am a full-time student and I am also working. I am currently on maternity leave. And I was able to get SNAP benefits, which is great, but as I said before, it’s not just an A or a B, it’s about the student and what they bring to campus before, you have to consider a lot of factors as a student. So it’s a lot to juggle.

Food insecurity is something I’ve struggled with in the past, even now. So it’s definitely a big problem on our campuses — not just QCC, but many campuses in Worcester and elsewhere. Here’s something we have to consider: students aren’t always students.

Russ: You know what I mentioned above, you know, there are two dangerous lacks of knowledge at play. One is, you know, students aren’t necessarily aware of the benefits of SNAP, and more of us generally don’t know that so many students are facing food insecurity. How much support did you find at Beacon Hill to help further this cause?

Prata-Nino: Part of what we’re doing is we have a champion like that in the middle Massachusetts senators. [Harriette] Chandler. She’s spearheading a bill we’ve filed to create the Hunger-Free Massachusetts Schools Initiative, which hopefully addresses some of the issues Brittney raised. …With this bill, we want universities to receive grants to create more points of contact, individuals who can reach students and help them facilitate that. Because, as Britney said, she’s a full-time student, she’s a full-time parent, and she’s working full-time.It’s hard to control the world alone [of applying for and keeping SNAP benefits]. But what if we had a point of contact that was like “Brittany, let me help you”. That’s great.

The other thing about our bill is that it requires our executive branch to take various ways to implement certain anti-hunger initiatives like Brittney mentioned, some of which set up a hunger-free campus task force that included students and Raising awareness within the University campus.

At Beacon Hill, we are very proud that we have had many sponsors in the Senate and House of Representatives. The session is over, but we want the opportunity to pass this bill to make sure students are fed enough to graduate.

Russ: Some of the approaches that you’re talking about, are there campuses locally that have put some of those approaches into practice? Have we seen some of these succeed?

Prata-Nino: Yes, there are some universities. For example, when we’re talking about a single point of contact, Bunker Hill Community College sort of leads the way.They have all sorts of people that provide not only food but other resources [like] Housing, connecting them and diverse students. We have other college campuses that have food pantries, like grocery store-style, and we know that’s not the solution, it’s just a Band-Aid to the problem. Students across campuses are also very involved through our alliances. But we do want students to have access to more resources and capacity building, similar to financial aid.

Russ: Gina, it was a pleasure talking to you and learning a lot of great information. Thank you so much.

Prata-Nino: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having us.

Russ: And Brittany, too. It was a pleasure talking to you and I wish you success in your studies.

Richards: Thank you so much. It was great to be a part of it. I really appreciate you guys.

Russ: That was Gina Plata-Nino, associate director of SNAP’s Food Research Action Center and co-chair of the Coalition for a School Without Hunger, and Brittney Richards, a student at Quinsigamond Community College.

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