Pittsburgh nonprofits, universities try pop-ups and food lockers to combat student food insecurity
Recent research has determined that 18% of students nationwide struggle with food insecurity.
Federal and state efforts exist to alleviate student needs, and with more than 80,000 college students residing in the Pittsburgh region, nonprofits and university staff are also comparing notes on how to combat the issue locally.
In late September, The Pennsylvania Department of Education launched the PA Hunger-Free Campus Grant Program, allocating $1 million to help Pennsylvania colleges and universities address student hunger. The same day, another program to support students in need was announced — PA MASLOW: A Hierarchy of Collegiate Basic Needs — a program that recognizes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
PA MASLOW identifies fundamental student needs in six pillars that need to be met in order for students to be able to thrive, and it provides funding for universities to grow programs that address each pillar:
- digital equity
- housing and transportation
- mental health
- personal needs
- adult student needs
- safety and belonging
Heather Starr Fiedler, chair of the Community Engagement Department at Point Park University, said access to substantial food and groceries is an urgent issue found within one of these pillars.
“Food, which is labeled under physical and mental health, is definitely a big one,” said Fiedler. “And it's kind of where we all started.”
Fiedler said student access to free food is one of Point Park's current areas of focus, and that the university’s on-campus free food pantry, Pioneer Pantry, is adapting to keep up with students' needs.
The pantry offers hundreds of canned foods, ingredients and hygienic products, allowing students to discreetly place and pick up online orders. A recent addition to its services are “break boxes,” which are offered to students who stay on campus during holidays when on-campus food services are closed.
The pantry also hosts monthly pop-up markets, providing more than 500 pounds of fresh produce from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Fiedler said she noticed that fresh vegetables were often left untouched at these markets, prompting another new initiative to provide free cooking classes so that students learn how to use ingredients.
The University of Pittsburgh is also making changes to address food insecurity on campus. The university’s dining and nutrition services, PittEats, introduced new temperature-controlled food lockers this fall to provide discreet access to free meals for students.
While Pitt students have access to the on-campus pantry that provides basic food and grocery needs, the lockers provide a new way for students to access freshly made food.
A new student group at Pitt, Food Recovery Heroes, collects leftover food and packages it into individual meals, which are placed into the temperature-controlled food lockers for students who may not be able to afford extra meal swipes.
Pitt has also started to consider dietary restrictions when tackling student hunger.
“At Pitt, we have a lot of international students,” said Sarah Remaley, assistant director of basic needs. “We have a large population that abides by a halal diet, and we are working with a vendor in the Strip District to order halal needs for our students.”
Ramaley says an equally important initiative within the university’s Basic Needs Department — and across the country — is to spread awareness among students who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
SNAP benefits provide government-funded debit cards to low-income individuals for food and grocery needs. While most college students are eligible for SNAP, many don’t know it is available or are intimidated by what they consider to be a long and tedious application process.
“A lot of students don't realize that they're eligible, but they are — especially if they're working a job,” said Remaley. “So we help them with that application and direct them to the right resources and explain how to collect the appropriate documents.”
Other universities such as Point Park are also offering SNAP information sessions and focusing on reaching out to students who may not know they are eligible.
“We know that there is a very large what we call ‘SNAP gap,’” Fiedler said, explaining that 57% of students who qualify for SNAP don't receive it. “We're constantly working with our students to get them signed up.”
In early November, a roundtable discussion at Carlow University addressed the issue of college students facing food insecurity in Pittsburgh. The discussion focused on SNAP benefits and highlighted possible solutions on federal, local and university levels.
Attendee Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, emphasized the need for better public policy to address easier access to SNAP benefits.
“We're not asking for the eligibility criteria to change,” said Ghubril, “There are already about 3.3 million college students eligible. What we're asking for is the application process that makes eligible kids unable to get the benefits to change.”
Much like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the application for SNAP requires specific paperwork and may often take weeks or months to process. While SNAP could be a significant relief and solution for hungry students, many educational leaders agree that until public policies like SNAP change, there must be quicker and easier relief for hungry students on campus.