Health, Hunger & Homelessness in a Campus Setting

By Ellen Daley, MS, RD, CDE

A national survey that included Rutgers University Newark, found that 20-25% of college and university students experience food insecurity, meaning they cannot afford sufficient food to eat every day. Many students involuntarily skip meals or end up relying on inexpensive, unhealthy foods like Ramen noodles as their sole source of calories. Another hidden student struggle on campuses across the country is homelessness. Studies show 15% of students who are struggling with food insecurity also have experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months.

People are often surprised that students on a college campus go hungry because of lack of money. The population most at risk can also be surprising; working students, first generation students, students receiving financial aid and students of color are at highest risk. When we look at the makeup of the RU-N student body, we know the risk of hunger is highly prevalent in our community.

Many factors that put a student at risk for food insecurity also increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. In the past, food pantries focused on relieving hunger with whatever was on hand. Today the focus has shifted to offering healthier options that will not only relieve hunger, but can help improve health.

Food and housing insecurity is not only a risk for poor health; it also affects a student’s academic success. Struggling with food and housing issues affects students’ ability to focus in class, makes it difficult to buy required textbooks, interferes with attending classes and increases the risk of dropping out of class or school. Helping students meet their food and housing needs will help them succeed academically.

In January 2017 pantryRUN, a student-run food pantry, opened as a resource for the RU-N campus. The pantry provides free food to students, faculty and staff who cannot afford adequate food. It also strives to be a healthy pantry, offering canned fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grain cereals and grains, protein and dairy products to help promote physical health to support student performance.

People receiving food from the pantry often share their stories and appreciation. One student visiting at the beginning of the semester said “I’m so glad you’re here, after I bought my textbooks, I didn’t have any money left for food.” A woman who learned about the pantry mid semester shared “This is such a blessing, last semester was so hard, and this will really help.” On a recent visit by a staff member, she said, “Hopefully I can give back in the future, but this is a very difficult time for me.”  

Over 6,500 pounds of food have been distributed since opening the doors to pantryRUN. The majority of food on the shelves comes through community food drives and donations Volunteers, campus groups, departments and university organizations have coordinated food drives to help stock the shelves. If you would like to help, you can donate food or run a food drive in your area.