Many college students are enjoying their summer break. But a few are just looking for something to eat. A recent survey found that more than a third of university students are “food insecure,” or lack steady access to healthy, affordable food. And Western Michigan University is not an exception.
Bob Psalmonds has been homeless three times. He’s gone bankrupt twice. Now he’s working on his second bachelor’s degree at Western Michigan University. But the obstacles continue. Throughout his time at Western, Psalmonds says he’s often wondered where his next meal would come from.
“Have you ever tried to write an article when you haven’t had lunch and, and you’re getting the hunger headaches? You ever had those? The hunger headaches where you can’t concentrate because your heads starting to throb. Your sugar is all screwed up and you’re not able to think. Try taking an exam.”
Psalmonds is just one of many students going hungry. According to a Wisconsin Hope Lab survey, about 36-percent of university students have experienced food insecurity within the last month, and 42-percent of community college students do. College and University Food Bank Alliance Co-Director Clare Cady says research shows that food insecure students work just as hard as their peers. But they are less likely to get good grades and to be healthy while they are in school.
“It’s not surprising to me, but I think it’s surprising to a lot of people that the effort is being put in. These students are still not able to do it because they’re dealing with the most fundamental challenge that you could have: I don’t have enough to eat, I don’t have a place to stay.”
Western Michigan University took steps to help hungry students on its campus beginning in the fall of 2014. Staff in the student affairs division started the Invisible Need Project. It set up a food pantry and an emergency relief fund for students. Shari Glaser chairs the committee.
“You know there’s a fundamental problem in society that says, "Why should you need a food pantry?' And I get that. But the fact is we do need one. We’re addressing the immediate problem, putting the band-aid on it so that our students have what they need right here, right now, today. Somebody else who’s a lot smarter than us and has a lot power than us can worry about the big things underneath that.”
Since it opened, Western’s food pantry has been visited more than 2,200 times, with 763 visits during the last academic year alone. The pantry lets students to fill one reusable grocery bag every two weeks. It offers a variety of foods including fresh meat and eggs.
Karen Lamons is the coordinator of housing assignments at WMU, and a co-founder of the Invisible Need Project. She says the committee has never approached anyone asking them to do a fundraiser. But donations have come from far and wide. Lamons says all donations go directly to help students in need.
“There’s nobody making money off this. And people are happy to do it. There’s not a staff member on this campus who hasn’t met a student who had a need (and) this is a way to help.”
Clare Cady says state and federal leaders need to help reduce the cost of going to college, and to change the structure of financial aid programs. She also says the nation needs to work on plugging gaps in the social "safety net." Cady says many college students can’t get food stamps because of the requirement that they work a minimum of 20 hours a week - something that would not be required if they were not in school.
“If we could change the rules a little bit around access to benefits like SNAP, or WIC, or TANF, then these students would be able to get exactly what they need: meeting basic needs so they can finish up. And if that happens, those students don’t need public benefits anymore. They’re going to have a job because they got a degree.”
Glaser and Lamons say they would like WMU's food pantry to become an access point. If a student experiences food insecurity, they believe there are other problems that can be addressed. For his part, Bob Psalmonds says he's grateful for work by the volunteers at the Invisible Need Project to help him continue his pursuit of a college degree. “It’s a lifesaver, literally. If you have enough food you can do just about anything as long as you’re dedicated enough to drive forward.”